Just look at the startling contrast between the two superstars’ lines during the fourth quarter of the Dallas Mavericks’ 107-101 loss Sunday night that further damaged Dallas’ dim playoff hopes.
Durant went 7-of-11 from the floor in the final frame, torching the Mavs for 19 of his 31 points. Nowitzki was held to four points -- all on free throws, not even attempting a field goal attempt -- despite being 8-of-10 from the floor in the first three quarters.
That illustrates the difference between two of the most unique, effective offensive weapons in NBA history at this point of their careers. The 24-year-old Durant is capable of taking over a game at any moment. The 34-year-old Nowitzki needs help to be put in position to dominate.
“The guards kind of have to be able to get the ball to Dirk,” Mavs big man Elton Brand said. “With Durant, he’s dribbling the ball up.”
Durant’s 17-point flurry in a span of 5:13 in the fourth quarter did indeed feature a pull-up 3-pointer. If he wasn’t bringing the ball up the floor, Durant could go as far out as necessary to catch it before attacking.
Jae Crowder and Vince Carter combined to keep Durant relatively quiet for three-plus quarters with Mavs defensive stopper Shawn Marion (calf) wearing street clothes and watching from the bench. But the dam broke for Durant early in the fourth.
“When he made that first shot in the fourth quarter, just the basket was big for him,” said Nowitzki, who finished with 23 points. “He made shots going left, going right, pull-up [3-pointers], got to the basket, he was shooting one-leggers. He had the whole full arsenal going. That’s tough.”
It’s tough for Nowitzki to create shots for himself these days. While he never possessed anything near Durant’s remarkable athleticism, Nowitzki now ranks 18th among the NBA’s all-time leading scorers in large part because of his ability to face up and feast against opposing power forwards and centers.
Dirk isolations, often with him catching the ball just above the elbow, used to make up the meat of the Mavs’ playbook. Those plays are now endangered species in Dallas, partially because of the physical toll it takes for a 7-footer to repeatedly have to create for himself, especially one who missed the first 27 games of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
“We know that a lot of teams are loading up and really making me work and pushing me out on the catches and denying me and just making it hard,” said Nowitzki, whose scoring average (16.2 points) is the lowest since his rookie season in 1998-99. “We feel like it’s easier with screen-and-rolls, keep attacking and keep moving. It’s a fun offense to play if everybody’s touching and moving the ball. That’s how we’ve been winning. We’re not a pound-it, iso team.”
In this case, Nowitzki felt no need to force the issue. He pointed out that the Mavs, who put up 29 points in the fourth quarter, weren’t having a problem scoring.
Nevertheless, it’d be nice to see the Mavs keep feeding Nowitzki after he hits his first eight shots from the floor. He seemed headed for a huge game after a personal 8-2 run early in the third quarter, when he drilled two 3s and a 21-footer in a span of 83 seconds.
Nowitzki got a grand total of two more shots from the floor -- and no more buckets -- in the next 20 minutes.
“They didn’t leave me anymore,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously in transition, they ran right to me. Even when we had some stuff happening on the strong side, they were just hugging me on the weak side and basically saying, ‘We don’t even want him to catch the ball.’ That’s an adjustment a lot of teams make.
“I still think we were right there. I don’t think that’s why we lost the game. We were scoring enough there in the fourth. We just couldn’t get stops anymore. That’s what hurt us.”
Of course, Durant had a lot to do with that. He was demanding the ball while Dirk was in decoy mode.
“I just told [Thunder coach Scott Brooks], ‘Let me see the ball and I’ll try to make the right play,’” Durant said. “And he trusted me enough to give it to me. Fourth quarter, coach always tells me, is my time, I just got to come through.”
The fourth quarter used to be Nowitzki’s time, as the Thunder knows all too well, having been victimized by Dirk’s clutch dominance over and over again in the 2011 Western Conference finals.
Those nights are no longer the norm for Nowitzki. For the Mavs to make a miraculous playoff push, they need to be, although the reward might be an unhealthy dose of Durant.