Are Dirk, Mavericks worried about knee?

NEWARK -- Whether Dirk Nowitzki is fit to play is up to him, the medical staff and the coaching staff -- and not, say, Charles Barkley.

Four games back from a sprained right knee, though, the numbers suggest Dirk isn't Dirk.

To the naked, non-medical eye, it seems Nowitzki is favoring the knee -- or sort of lugging a heavy leg -- and is unable to get lift on his shot and is slow rotating on defense. Maybe most glaring is his diminished rebounding numbers. And perhaps it's all simply a natural progression after missing nine games over three weeks. The Chicago Bulls certainly noticed that he's not moving as well as he did before the injury because they opted to defend him mostly straight-up with Luol Deng.

"I was actually surprised they didn't double-team me," Nowitzki said. "I just have to make more plays down there. Like I said, I have to get my legs under me and finish those plays like I have earlier in the season. It's going to come back soon."

If teams don't commit to doubling Nowitzki, it means defenders can stay home on the Mavs' shooters and make life more difficult for them. Dallas was 7-of-22 from the 3-point arc in the 82-77 loss to the Bulls.

Nowitzki finished with a team-high 19 points, but was 6-of-16 from the field. He did get to the free throw line eight times.

Before he sprained his knee on Dec. 27, Nowitzki was having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 24.1 points on 54.5 percent shooting and 7.4 rebounds. In the four games since, those numbers are down to 18.0 points on 41.8 percent shooting (23-of-55) and 5.0 rebounds a game. Nowitzki had just two rebounds against Chicago, tying a season-low.

If you remove his first game back at Memphis, which lasted just 15 minutes because he was ejected early in the third quarter, his numbers are 21.8 points on 43.8 percent (21-of-48) shooting and 5.0 rebounds.

Bringing Nowitzki back early would make little sense. The team is not in jeopardy of falling out of a playoff spot, but risking his long-term health to stop the bleeding with an early return would jeopardize the postseason. Unless Nowitzki got antsy watching his club lose seven of the nine they played without him -- and a handful in deplorable fashion -- that he forced his way back in, then it is presumed that he had full medical clearance to resume playing.

He has logged heavy minutes on the knee since the Memphis game. He played 31 minutes at Detroit on Monday, then after one day of rest he logged 37 minutes in an up-and-down game against the Lakers and then 38 the next night in a physical grind-fest at Chicago.

Still, Nowitzki and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle continue to say that Nowitzki is improving daily and it's just a matter of time before he bounces back to form.

"Dirk's doing a lot better. [Thursday night] he may have been a little bit tired because of the back-to-back, it's the first back-to-back he's played since being back. But, he's still involved in the process of a full return," Carlisle said. "This is where we all got to pick him up and have enough balance on offense, and be able to help him defensively and all those kind of things. And, hopefully Saturday [at New Jersey] he'll feel even better and we'll be in an even better position. He's still not where ultimately he's going to be with his recovery."