In the NBA playoffs this year, many top performers have displayed their talents, among them Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Kevin Durant. But no star has shined as brightly as an aging, slow afoot seven-foot power forward, Dirk Nowitzki, who entered the NBA in 1998. What makes Dirk such a difficult matchup — one that Mavericks fans hope will bring the title to Dallas?
When he came into the NBA, Nowitzki was viewed as an oddity — a seven-footer specializing in shooting from distance. It’s still true that Nowitzki’s jumpshot is what makes him such a difficult matchup, and it’s the jumper that is his deadliest offensive weapon. But seldom mentioned is the adjustment the forward made in his shooting mechanics. Dirk has gained an amazing feel for the half-court sets that define NBA playoff basketball (as opposed to the open-court style often seen in the regular season at which Dwayne Wade and LeBron James excel). Nowitzki will post his defender anywhere from twelve to eighteen feet away from the basket, and press his hip into the defender. If he’s too close, he can put a couple dribbles on the floor with his first step, which although it seems slow, is a good first step for a seven-footer. In this way, Dirk’s offensive weapon is his patience.
Next, if the defender backs off to prevent a drive, Nowitzki uses his height advantage fully by doing two things: releasing his shot high above his head, instead of in front of his body, as most jumpshooters would. Additionally, Dirk leans backward slightly, not so much making his shot a fadeaway (in the tradition of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant), but more like an easy fade that gives Dirk the necessary foot or so he needs to release his shot. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with his Sky Hook, Dirk Nowitzki has discovered an accurate, unblockable shot.
On May 17, 2011, Dirk put all his tools into action against the Oklahoma City Thunder, scoring 48 points with 24 for 24 free throw shooting. But how did he get to the foul line so often? Was it favoritism from the referees? Definitely not for those who watched the game closely. Against the Thunder, Dirk established that he was shooting his jumper accurately early on, causing defenders to draw closer to him, which allowed him to show yet another of his offensive skills: the ball fake. On most of the instances when he drew a foul, Dirk merely offered up a believable shot fake, and his defender had to get out of position in order to have a chance to alter Dirk’s shot. With his feel for the half-court set, Dirk could merely step into the defender and draw a foul.
However, there is a definite way to stop Dirk: to double-team him, where two defenders join up to defend one skilled offensive player. This is where Dirk’s final offensive skill is necessary: his passing. As a seasoned veteran and on an aged Mavericks team (e.g. teammates Jason Kidd (age 38) and Jason “Jet” Terry (age 33)), Dirk has the lack of an ego to pass out of the double-team.
On one late play against the Thunder on Tuesday, Dirk showed all of the skills I’ve outlined above. Dirk got the ball in the post about seventeen feet from the basket, got his defender on his hip, ball-faked, took a first-step dribble around his immediate defender, drew a help defender, and then finally forced a third player, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, to take a step to prevent Dirk’s drive. When Dirk kicked the ball out to Jason Terry for a three-pointer, Dirk was surrounded by three defenders, and even the speedy Westbrook did not have time to close out on Terry’s three-pointer. When the three dropped, the game was essentially over, and Dirk Nowitzki was the player who facilitated good basketball for the Mavs.
Offensive skill, tools, patience, strategy, and leadership without ego are what combine to make Dirk Nowitzki the most difficult matchup in basketball right now. His game on Tuesday may not be topped, as Dirk was 12-15 on shots, 24-24 on free throws, and scored 48 points while not taking a three-pointer. Dirk put on the proverbial “clinic.” If he can continue his hot streak and get near his “50-60-90” pace (50% on three-pointers, 60% on all offensive shots, and 90% on free throws), the Mavs have a good chance to ride the thin seven-foot German’s shoulders all the way to a title.