DALLAS -- He’s the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history, but the most memorable plays in Dirk Nowitzki’s career have come off the dribble.
Who could forget the future Hall of Famer’s two game-winning drives during the 2011 NBA Finals? He spun past Miami’s Chris Bosh and finished with a lefty finger roll to win Game 2. In Game 4, while batting a triple-digit temperature, the face of the Dallas Mavericks’ franchise mustered the energy to blow by Udonis Haslem with the game on the line to beat the Heat again.
Now, the Spurs are daring the dozen-time All-Star to drive. And his 35-year-old legs won’t let Dirk do it.
That, in a nutshell, is why Nowitzki’s numbers have been so pedestrian in this first-round series that’s knotted up after four games.
“I think they're forcing me to play off the dribble,” Nowitzki said after the Mavs’ Game 4 loss, when he scored a series-high 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting, marking the first time in his career he’s been held under 20 in four consecutive playoff games. “It's not any secret at this point I'm not the greatest driver anymore. They're just taking my airspace away. That's what the good teams have done over the last few years.”
Gregg Popovich is a coaching genius and the Spurs have been an elite defensive team for a decade and a half, but it’s still stunning to see the big German bottled up like this in a playoff series.
Nowitzki is averaging only 16 points per game, shooting an unsightly 38.5 percent from the floor, including only 1-of-5 from 3-point range. This is threatening to be the worst statistical playoff series of Nowitzki’s career, challenging the 2007 first-round flameout, when Nowitzki averaged 19.7 points on 38.3 percent shooting as the top-seeded, 67-win Mavs exited ungracefully in six games against the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs are stopping the No. 10 scorer in NBA history with a mostly simple game plan: Sic Tiago Splitter on him and don’t give Nowitzki room to breathe.
Get Splitter out of the game and Dirk can go to work. Nowitzki has 27 points on 45.8 percent shooting in 48 minutes this series when Splitter has been on the bench. But Nowitzki has had to deal with the agile, 6-foot-11 Splitter the majority of time this series, and he’s scored only 35 points on 34.1 percent shooting in 102 minutes with the Spurs’ center on the floor.
“Look, this is a long series, the shot-making is going to even out,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, sick of being asked about his superstar’s offensive inefficiency in this series. “Trust me when I say that. In my 30th year in this league, I can tell you that for a fact.”
The facts are that Splitter has done a phenomenal job so far in this series on Nowitzki, getting the occasional double-team help on post-ups. Splitter has stayed in Nowitzki’s pocket on pick-and-pops, essentially eliminating the 3 as a weapon in Dirk’s arsenal. Nowitzki is still the league’s most lethal midrange shooter, but he’s been mediocre in this series, mostly taking tightly contested jumpers.
Nowitzki made 50 percent of his 2-point shots from 10 feet or longer during the regular season, averaging almost five buckets per game from that range. He shot 39.8 percent from 3-point range, hitting 1.6 per game.
Nowitzki’s midrange percentage has plummeted to 41.7 percent (20-of-48) in this series. He’s only knocked down one 3-pointer in four games. And he hasn’t been able to punish the Spurs for their commitment to preventing him from getting open jumpers by putting the ball on the floor.
“They make it tough on us,” Nowitzki said. “They're getting into us and taking us out of our comfort zone. We've got to keep battling."
Nowitzki’s will is as strong as ever. Unfortunately, his dribble drive has diminished, something the Spurs are exploiting in this series.