After years of playoff futility, Dallas pulled off a staggering sweep of the defending-champion Lakers, raising serious questions about their future
At the end of every empty spring Dirk Nowitzki goes back to a tiny community gymnasium in the German village of Rattelsdorf and finds the man who discovered him. Holger Geschwindner is a 65-year-old former physicist with white hair and penetrating blue eyes who learned basketball from American soldiers stationed in Germany after World War II, made the West German Olympic team in 1972 and played for an adult league team in W√ºrzburg. One day his adult league game was pushed back because a youth game had gone to overtime, and as Geschwindner waited in the stands, he noticed a gangly but coordinated 16-year-old. "He has all the ability," Geschwindner thought, "but none of the tools."
Geschwindner eventually invited Nowitzki to work out with him in Rattelsdorf, 50 miles from Nowitzki's home in W√ºrzburg, and together they began to fill what Geschwindner calls "Dirk's toolbox." Geschwindner gave Nowitzki his high release, based on calculus he developed for the ideal jump shot, which has an arc of at least 47 degrees. In the years since Nowitzki was drafted in the first round by the Mavericks, became an All-Star and won the 2007 MVP trophy, he kept returning to Rattelsdorf, with a checklist of tools he wanted to add: rebounding, defense, passing out of double teams, finishing after contact, spin moves, bank shots, fadeaways.
Nowitzki's skill set grew, but Dallas blew a 2--0 lead to the Heat in the Finals in 2006, won 67 games and lost in the first round in 2007, fell again in the first round in 2008 and once more a year ago. He had a hard time escaping the most tired tag in sports: Can't win the big one. While a less Teutonic player might have shown his angst, Nowitzki quietly took it back to Rattelsdorf and poured it out in the old gym. He retooled again and again. "Dirk is a very private person," says Mavericks president Donnie Nelson. "But he took a lot of arrows and went through a lot of pain. Most people would have been broken."
On Sunday morning Nowitzki drove to American Airlines Center with Geschwindner, who put him through a private workout on the Mavericks' practice court. "We reviewed all the tools he would need for this special game," Geschwindner says. Two hours later, Nowitzki & Co. opted for the sledgehammer and bludgeoned the Lakers 112--86 in Game 4, sweeping the two-time champions out of the second round and muting whatever retirement party Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson had in mind. When Nowitzki was asked how he would commemorate his first trip to the Western Conference finals in five years, after a series in which he cast his playoff bugaboos aside with 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, he said, "I think I'm going to have some pizza." Then he drove home with Geschwindner, who is staying in an upstairs guest room, and will not be going back to Germany anytime soon.
The Mavs' newfound mettle dates back only 15 days, when they were on the verge of another first-round catastrophe. They squandered a 23-point lead to the Trail Blazers in Game 4 and trudged off the court with frozen faces, looking no different than they had at Golden State in '07, New Orleans in '08 and San Antonio last April. "It was the defining moment in our season," says guard Jason Terry. When the Mavs returned to Portland for Game 6, they had a players-only dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House, and watched the Grizzlies face the Spurs on a television in a back room. "We were just friends talking basketball," Terry says. "You could feel the camaraderie between us. We were not going to lose in the first round again."
Dallas has now won six straight games, none more convincing than the closeout of the Lakers, when the Mavericks' brisk ball movement led to a playoff-record-tying 20 three-pointers. For the series they outscored L.A. from beyond the arc 147--45. Owner Mark Cuban couldn't have been giddier if he'd been gifted the Dodgers. The Mavs have a three-point-shooting contest they play at practice, and when someone gets hot, an assistant coach yells, "Smell the smoke." The burning scent from Game 4 could linger. Terry, the sixth man, sank nine of 10 threes. Backup forward Peja Stojakovic, released by the Raptors in January, drained six of six. Reserve point guard J.J. Barea, an undrafted free agent out of Northeastern, scored 22 points. This was the Big Three that felled a potential dynasty.
The first month of the playoffs—thrilling as it was, with Grizzlies upsets, Derek Rose drives and Kevin Durant daggers—produced nothing more spectacular than the Lakers' combustion. There was outrage (vice president Magic Johnson saying the L.A. roster should be "blown up"), intrigue (center Andrew Bynum claiming the team suffered from "trust issues") and plenty of violence. Small forward Ron Artest was suspended for Game 3 because he clotheslined Barea late in Game 2, while sixth man Lamar Odom (who shoved Nowitzki) and Bynum (who elbowed an airborne Barea in the ribs) were ejected from Game 4. Even Jackson, a portrait of sideline zen for two decades, chose his final hours to summon his inner Bobby Knight and pop power forward Pau Gasol in the chest. This was not quite the ending Jackson envisioned for his next book. The Lakers blew a 16-point lead in the third quarter of Game 1, an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and were in such a hurry to flee Dallas in Game 4 that Bynum peeled off his jersey before leaving the court. "I saw in their faces," Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson said after Game 4, "they weren't there."
Kobe Bryant handled the Lakers' comeuppance with the most aplomb, though he had the most to lose. For three years Bryant staved off LeBron James—both the puppet version and the human one—in the race contrived by advertising executives for Best Basketball Player in the World. It didn't matter that James was stronger, faster and 11 years younger, because he was regularly home each June while Bryant was still playing, and every sports bar argument ended right there. Implied in the case for Bryant, however, was a cruel caveat: The moment his team fell short, even if through no fault of his own, his perch would be gone, probably forever.
Bryant was not fully responsible for the Lakers' demise, but neither was he powerful enough to stop it. He needed 52 shots—spanning nearly 2½ games—before making his first layup, and while he might have been hampered by a sprained left ankle, he was more likely limited by Dallas's pseudo--zone defense, which packed the lane with a guard at each elbow and a big man on each block. The Mavericks were content to give up open jumpers as long as they kept Bryant out of the paint. "Kobe's missing some shots he normally makes," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle after Game 2.
Many players, including Nowitzki, still refer to Bryant as the best in the league almost as a reflex, out of deference to his championships and late-game chops. But Hornets point guard Chris Paul outperformed Bryant in the first round, and Nowitzki did the same in the second, even in the clutch. In Game 1, Bryant clanked a three-pointer at the buzzer right after he threw an errant pass and fell down trying to take a handoff. In Game 3 he missed his final four shots and tossed away another pass. "The last five minutes are when I go to work," Bryant said. "And I didn't."
The Lakers have not yet revealed who will replace Jackson, but assistant coach Brian Shaw is the presumed favorite, and thus the one who will likely coax Bryant into the next and possibly final stage of his career. Bryant is only 32, but his 15 years in the NBA have been filled with extended playoff runs, and he will pass Michael Jordan in regular-season and playoff minutes early next season. Jackson tried to preserve him, holding him out of almost every practice and keeping him under 34 minutes per game. Convincing him to accept a more limited role could be awkward. "In his younger days maybe he could will and carry a team that's struggling," Shaw says. "We need a bit more help for him now. But I don't think his transition will be as hard as people expect."
L.A. can make a splashy trade much easier than a free-agent signing: If all options are exercised, Gasol and Artest are under contract for the next three years; Artest, Bynum, Odom and guard Derek Fisher for the next two. (Bryant has three years and $83.5 million left on his contract.) While the Lakers have invested in size, the NBA has been overtaken by speed, leaving them behind. Bryant, who has never won a title without Jackson, is in danger of the championship window shutting on his arthritic right index finger. "I wouldn't say that if I were you," says Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "Somehow, I don't think we'll be talking about the decline of the Lakers in training camp."
There will be a clamor to take Johnson's advice, break up the core, acquire somebody who can share the marquee with Bryant and eventually push him off (Dwight Howard?). Or the Lakers could make like the Mavericks, stick with their sole headliner, find him a couple of fresh sidekicks and let him try again.
When American Airlines Center was built in 2001, Nelson told Cuban that he wanted no walls in his office, only grease boards. The names of every player in the NBA are written on those boards, and as Nelson reads the Dallas roster across the top row, he thinks about how many names have been swapped out. He too kept retooling. But one always stayed up there in bright green ink. "The original Mercedes engine," he says.
Nowitzki is actually older than Bryant by two months and learned the game at Geschwindner's basketball academy, which bears no resemblance to America's AAU programs. Geschwindner calls his school the Institute of Applied Nonsense, where he encouraged Nowitzki to strengthen unused muscles by rowing, fencing and Rollerblading. The name is a joke, but the slogan—"Basketball is jazz"—is taken so seriously that Nowitzki has tinkered with the drums, the saxophone and recently the guitar. "Basketball is a team performance," Geschwindner explains, "with individual solos."
The only upside to the Mavericks' premature playoff exits were Nowitzki's early trips back to Rattelsdorf, though Geschwindner refused to work with him right away. He insists on starting every off-season with a three- or four-week vacation—they've been to Africa, Australia and Asia together—so Nowitzki can clear his head. Only when they return do they attack the checklist. One summer, they implemented the step-back jumper in which Nowitzki plants his left foot, bends his right knee, lifts the ball above his blonde locks and releases while falling away from the defender. He used that shot over the 7-foot Gasol, the 6'10" Odom and the 6'10" Joe Smith. "I've never seen anyone else in my life take a shot like that before," says Smith. "I don't think anybody can block it."
With a perimeter game reminiscent of Larry Bird's, Nowitzki is one of the toughest matchups the NBA has ever seen. Nelson wonders why he is not more appreciated outside the Metroplex. After all, he has carried Dallas to at least 50 victories in each of the past 11 years, never averaging fewer than 20 points or seven rebounds in that stretch. The notion that he unravels in the playoffs is myth, his career numbers there spiking to 25.6 points and 10.6 boards. This season the Mavericks won more than 75% of their games when Nowitzki was in the lineup, but once again they were everybody's upset pick in the first round. Sure, they landed center Tyson Chandler in a trade that bolstered their defense, but they lost forward Caron Butler in January to a knee injury that weakened them everywhere else.
The moves that made the difference were largely overlooked, the work of an aggressive owner and creative president: retaining backup center Brendan Haywood, despite the Chandler deal, so he could help against the Lakers' massive front line; recruiting Stojakovic, despite his bum left knee, so he could stretch L.A.'s slow perimeter defense; and developing the 6-foot Barea, who skewered the Lakers with his penetration. Barea struggles when posted up by other point guards, but L.A. rarely employs that tactic. Just as Nowitzki outplayed Bryant, Carlisle outmaneuvered Jackson, using a bench that was deeper and more versatile. "J.J. Barea kicked our ass," said Bryant, with disgust and disbelief.
For most of the decade the Lakers and the Spurs blocked the Mavericks' path to the Finals, and now both are out of the way. Nowitzki has a week to rest, but he will continue working with Geschwinder, taking him on the road when the conference finals begin. In Los Angeles the pair went through their pregame paces at Westchester High, and they will find another gym in Memphis or Oklahoma City to do the same.
They have spent enough summers adding to the toolbox. The time has come to empty it.
BEFORE THE SERIES, NOWITZKI WAS HAVING A HARD TIME ESCAPING THE MOST TIRED TAG IN SPORTS: CAN'T WIN THE BIG ONE.
"IN HIS YOUNGER DAYS, MAYBE [BRYANT] COULD CARRY A TEAM THAT'S STRUGGLING," SAYS SHAW. "WE NEED A BIT MORE HELP FOR HIM NOW."
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
OUT OF REACH Thanks to the play of Jason Kidd and his pesky teammates, Bryant came up short—way short—in his quest for a second three-peat.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NOWITZKI)
GERMAN ENGINEERING Nowitzki reached deep into his toolbox to outplay Gasol, leaving 11-time champion Jackson (right) flummoxed in his final series as a coach.
GREG NELSON (JACKSON)
[See caption above]
HOT AND BOTHERED Barea repeatedly broke down L.A.'s D, driving Bynum to take a cheap shot (left), while the Mavs' pseudo-zone put the clamps on Kobe.