Between now and Thursday, when the Mavs and Warriors battle again, there is going to be a lot of talk about Dirk, and how he ‘elevated his game,’ ‘silenced critics,’ etc. I think this says a lot about the relationship the media has with the NBA and how powerful they are in influencing how the game is sold. The media is trying to spin the series to tell us fans a story. It’s a story of emotion, where the emotionally charged Warriors are out-emoting the scared Mavs. Dirk Nowitzki, the erstwhile MVP is being bashed because he lacks the ‘fire’ to elevate his game. He is compared to the great scorers of all time and falls short, not because of a deficiency in his game, not because he is easily defended, but because of his ‘passion,’ his ‘drive,’ his ‘confidence.’ Then, like manna from heaven (from the league’s perspective), Dirk puts together his best game of the series in a do or die situation, and a new chapter is added to this heavily constructed story. Columns will come out tomorrow applauding Dirk for silencing the critics, ignoring the fact that the people writing these columns are the very critics he silenced. Folks, most of the people whose stuff you read (yes, even Bill Simmons) are writing for mass media outlets, most of which have close financial ties to the NBA. And so they spin, taking a complex series and telling it as a nice, neat, narrative.
Basketball, like all sports, is in large part a game of intensity, emotion does factor heavily into what these players do every night. That said, 67 win teams do not lose to 42 win teams on intensity alone. Make no mistake people, Dirk Nowitzki is as competitive as most. Not everyone is Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, or Steve Nash (to name a few), but if you don’t think Nowitzki plays with fire than you aren’t watching closely enough. What’s hurting the Mavs is not an emotional deficiency, it has to do with a combination of a brilliant coaching job on the part of Don Nelson, the unique nature of Nowitzki’s game, and the fact that the Mavs just don’t match up well with the Warriors.
Don Nelson is of a unique mold among coaches in that he needs teams that can play to his style, he doesn’t coach to a team’s strengths (see Knicks, 1995). However, when blessed with the right type of lineup, he is among the best strategists in the game. When he was with Golden State the first time, and definitely during his stint with Dallas, Nelson was great at running the team in a way that emphasized his team’s ability. Add that to the fact that he is intimately acquainted with the Mavs’ personnel, and you have a recipe for a great coaching job. I could cite a number of things that he has done to hurt the Mavs, but let’s focus on how he is defending Dirk.
When people claim that Dirk Nowitzki redefined the 4 position, they say it because he has a unique playing style. Dirk is slow, he can be explosive off one dribble but does a poor job creating his own shot off the dribble. Despite his size, he plays best while facing the basket, and because of this can be very ineffective on the low block. And, of course, Dirk’s stroke combined with his size makes his shot nigh unstoppable. To play down his deficiencies, the Mavs usually run a 1-4 set, which means that Dirk gets the ball in the middle of the floor, while everyone else spreads out along the base line (1 player at the top, 4 players at the bottom). Usually teams isolate their scorers on one side or the other. The problem with isolating the middle of the floor, like the Mavs do, is that it means that a double team can come from anywhere. Nelson knows this, and he has the personnel to exploit this weakness in the Mavs set. He has doubles coming from all over the floor, forcing Nowtizki to make a decision: He can try to pass out of the double team, a tough prospect because the middle of the floor is a difficult place to pass out of effectively (and Dirk is not a terrific passer). Another option is to use his dribble to commit to one side, which is exactly what the Warriors want Nowitzki to do. Once they get Nowitzki to put the ball on the floor, they have him at his most vulnerable. Turnovers and bad shots ensue. These tactics are effective, they take Dirk off his game, and THAT is when the mind games start, that is when the confidence begins to eek away. It is not emotion that is dictating this series, it is strategy.
And regarding whether Nowitzki actually ‘elevated his game’ in the fourth tonight, undoubtedly Dirk played his best fourth quarter tonight, but very little of what he did was different from other games. Those two big threes he hit in the last few minutes? They looked eerily similar to the two he hit at the end of game 4. The difference? These came a few minutes earlier, where as Dirk’s hot shooting in game four was too little too late. So, when you read that Dirk has found his fire, regained the competitive spirit, or whatever hyperbolic statement ESPN.com throws at you, think really hard before you buy into the hype.