DIRK NOWITZKIshook his head in mock exasperation. "Those damn Germans," he said. Yetanother TV crew from Deutschland had kept him from his appointment with a coldbeer or two back in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room. "This is a big story[in Germany]," he said last Saturday night, stating the obvious, after hehad scored 24 points in the Mavs' 102-93 Game 6 Western Conference finalsvictory over the Phoenix Suns that sent Dallas to its first NBA championshipseries.
The question is:How big a story is Nowitzki in the U.S.? We'll find out over the next couple ofweeks, but one could argue that no NBA superstar is as overlooked as Nowitzki,who finished 21st in this year's All-Star Game voting. (Houston's Tracy McGradygot three times more votes than Nowitzki for doing three times less.) There isno doubt that Shaquille O'Neal's oversized personality and oversized body willdominate the gestalt of the Finals, whether his Miami Heat beats Nowitzki'sclub. And if you're looking for Mavs story lines, you'll probably turn first toundersized coach Avery Johnson and his oversized personality, then tonormal-sized owner Mark Cuban and his oversized personality.
But Dallas'son-court fortunes will surely rest on the performance of the 7-foot Nowitzki,"the man we look to on every possession, every minute, every night of theyear," as point guard Jason Terry puts it. You wonder if Nowitzki, who isin his eighth season, is one of the game's true prototypes; in his case the7-footer who thrives--not just plays, thrives--on the perimeter."Obviously, [Minnesota's] Kevin Garnett is a great player who can shootfrom the outside," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who watched Nowitzki lay50 points on his team in Dallas's 117-101 series-turning Game 5 victory lastThursday night, "but in Dirk's case, you're talking about one of the greatshooters ever to play the game, a guy in Larry Bird's class as a pure shooter.Then you add the fact that he's seven feet tall."
A giant whoprefers the perimeter is inevitably viewed as being soft, and, indeed, that taghas followed Nowitzki from his native W√ºrzburg to Big D. He no doubt needed theMavs' ascendancy to help invalidate the premise, but it has always been flawed.Nowitzki is a terrific rebounder (his career number is 8.5 per game, but he hasaveraged nine or more in five of the last six seasons) and a willingcompetitor, whose career playoff mark of 25.9 points per game exceeds hisregular-season rate of 22.0. The jokes about his defense were an uncontestedlayup for his critics (he is known as "Irk", as in no D), but being amediocre defender does not necessarily equate with softness. Nowitzki's bestbuddy, Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, is a mediocre defender, yet Nash iscalled "spunky" and "feisty" and all sorts of other nicethings--not to mention "two-time MVP."
There is acertain heavy-footed ponderousness to Nowitzki's defense, but the same can besaid of his exquisite offense--he often bulls his way to wherever he needs togo with a slow-motion, back-down dribble. And while Nowitzki has virtually nocrossover move, he doesn't need one because his spin step is so effective. TheSuns talked about trying to "catch his spin" with a second defender,but, like most every other team, had no success because Nowitzki is too strongand too skilled.
The fact that hedoesn't post up more has also contributed to his rep for being soft. Butquestioning why Nowitzki doesn't score the majority of his points near thebasket is like asking why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't score the majority of hispoints from the perimeter. Nowitzki's fallaway jumper is the game's mostunblockable shot since Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook. "You just can't get it,"says Suns center Boris Diaw, "so there is no use trying."
In the conferencesemifinals against San Antonio, Nowitzki invented a new position halfwaybetween the low box and the perimeter by posting up the smaller Spurs defendersat the foul line. So when a deadly 7-foot shooter has it 15 feet from thebasket, what are you going to do about it?
Whatever Miamidecides to do with Nowitzki--6'8" power forward Udonis Haslem will likelydraw the defensive assignment (box, page 44)--he is sure to be the Heat'sbiggest headache in the Finals, which were to begin Thursday in Dallas. Meaningthat the next complaint you hear about "those damn Germans" might becoming from Shaq & Co.
ON BOARD Nowitzki (41) is no softy when he does go inside.