Efficiency returns to Dirk's game in win

DALLAS -- After hitting for 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, Dirk Nowitzki said there was at least one thing he was capable of doing Saturday night different from the rest of his return from a sprained right knee.

"Make a shot," Nowitzki said. "That's about it."

In all seriousness, Nowitzki looked more like the MVP candidate that was blistering the net at 54.5 percent clip before he went down on Dec. 27. In Saturday's 102-91 win over the Atlanta Hawks, the Dallas Mavericks' fourth consecutive win and fifth in six games, Nowitzki made four of his first five shots and never fell out of rhythm.

Coach Rick Carlisle is taking measures to help Nowitzki maintain his wind -- Nowitzki on Thursday said he's been tiring quickly in the second halves -- by playing in shorter bursts. He was the first starter, along with DeShawn Stevenson, to get a breather at the 5:08 mark of the first quarter and then played two stints in the second quarter.

He played a total of 33 minutes, which included a solid 9:32 of the fourth quarter when he scored five points and grabbed three of his six rebounds, tripling his board output from Thursday's game.

"I just felt that his offensive flow was a lot smoother tonight," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "You don't go 8-for-11 in this league getting the attention he gets unless your rhythm is starting to come back. We're playing him in relatively short stretches, but he's going all-out in those stretches and that's part of the process of getting back. He gets closer and closer to getting back to where he was and it's encouraging."

Nowitzki seemed to have his full arsenal, or at close to it, at his disposal. Perhaps his pretty step-back jumper in the second quarter best exemplified his returning diversity and capabilities. He drove the ball into the paint and then stopped on a dime, leaned back on his left leg and swished about a 9-footer.

Nowitzki knocked down his first two jumpers from 18 and 19 feet on the Mavs' first two possessions. His next two buckets in the quarter were both hard drives that resulted in finger rolls.

"As each game has come he's gotten more aggressive," Carlisle said. "You can tell there's more quickness, there's more thrust and all those things. We talked about a process the night in Memphis he was coming back. We're a couple weeks into it now and the hope is another however long, two, three games, a week, it will be there."

His hot shooting was certainly a welcome sight. In the previous seven games since his return on Jan. 15, Nowitzki was just 43-of-110 for 39.1 percent from the floor. That span dropped his scoring average a full point from 24.1 to 23.1, and his shooting percentage slipped to 51.6 percent, which, if the season ended today, would still rank as a career-high.

"I'm going to keep working. I'm going to keep working to ultimately get there where I was. It feels better from game to game, and I'm going to keep on working, doing my stuff after practices and stay a little extra and do some extra stuff, and I'll be back to normal hopefully soon."