Over the course of his evolution as a basketball player, Dirk Nowitzki has become a bit of a Spurs killer. His height was too much for Bruce Bowen to overcome, and his array of fakes and spins has always been an odd match for the defensive talents of Tim Duncan. Forever stuck in the no-man’s land of basketball interpositionality, Dirk seemed immune to San Antonio’s defensive genius.
In these past two games, you never would have guessed.
In Game 1, Dirk was limited by foul trouble and swamped with double teams. He finished the night shooting a reasonable 7 for 15, totalling 19 points and 8 rebounds. In Game 2, Dirk seemed to have the gameplan down: he spun away from the double team for good looks, and went straight to the basket for the finish or the whistle. Dirk’s desire to get in the lane have rarely been more evident than in the first half of Game 2, and it’s the only reason that Dirk even broke 10 points; Dirk made just one jumpshot. 14 points, 3 of 14 shooting, and just 6 rebounds. When you get that kind of production out of your best player and your most effective scorer, there’s bound to be trouble.
The big question remains: were Dirk’s two flub games products of vicious defense, bad luck, or supernatural intervention?
Previous experience seems to indicate some combination of the latter, not that San Antonio’s defense hasn’t been strong. Everything that the Spurs are doing is everything that they’ve always done: occasional stints of Bowen, hard double teams to force the ball out of Dirk’s hands, and one-on-one looks against defenders that just aren’t suited to be guarding seven footers with range. Matt Bonner has had some occasional success, but he’s also been a complete defensive liability at times.
Tim MacMahon of the DMN Mavs Blog breaks down every scoring opportunity Dirk had in the first two games, and Tim’s conclusion is the same as mine:
…Dirk will put up close to his normal point production during these games in Dallas if he keeps getting the same kind of looks. The Spurs made it tough for Dirk, but if he had a hot hand, he could have been in his typical 25-point range either night.
On some possessions, the Spurs are just playing damn good defense. They get up in Dirk’s chest, draw an offensive foul, or push him out of his comfort zones. That’s to be expected from a premier defensive outfit like San Antonio. But Dirk’s struggles go beyond that; he’s flat-out missing shots that he normally makes. Elbow jumpers really do fall with the ease of layups for Dirk, and he’s missing both his trademark fallaway shots as well as wide open looks. A wide open jumper from mid-range, and Dirk throws up a brick. That’s not good defense, that’s just a matter of a shooter doing what shooters do: have off nights.
Dirk was far worse shooting-wise in Game 2 than in Game 1, and it may be easy to point to Dirk’s tender ankle and jammed thumb as the culprits. I’m not so convinced. Dirk’s shooting troubles started long before his in-game injuries went down. Credit to Nowitzki for getting into the lane and, in turn, to the line, but all the drives and free throws in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that the jumpers just weren’t falling. If you’re the type to see that as an indictment of Dirk’s game, then so be it. But even the greatest of players and the greatest of shooters have bad days at the office, and Dirk is no exception.