SAN ANTONIO -- Gregg Popovich has no problem with awkward silence. He does not offer empty praise. So the legendary San Antonio Spurs coach’s pregame response to a question about how Dirk Nowitzki’s game has changed over the years can’t be classified as just kind coachspeak.
“Not much. He looks the same to me,” Popovich said. “He’s a remarkable player, competitor. Fierce competitor, class act, special guy.”
Just in case you didn’t believe him, the proof was in Pop’s game plan Wednesday night. It was essentially to dare anyone not named Dirk to shoot.
It worked, allowing the league’s stingiest defensive team to pull out an 88-83 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, who put up a valiant effort in their third game in four nights but finished the tough road trip without a win.
There have been some changes to Nowitzki’s game -- such as his ability to create off the dribble, which he admits has declined -- but the burden on him remains the same. The Mavs have tried and failed for four offseasons to make him their second-best player.
Nowitzki doesn’t have the luxury of Tim Duncan, his fellow all-time great and longtime rival, who at 39 can be a complementary piece after San Antonio signed perennial All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and developed small forward Kawhi Leonard into an emerging superstar. Duncan can have a solid two-point game in a win like he did Wednesday, rebounding and protecting the rim while Aldridge and Leonard combined to score 44 points.
The Mavs need Nowitzki to perform at an All-Star level, which he has during Dallas’ somewhat surprising 9-7 start, proving he’s still one of the league’s most lethally efficient shooters at the ripe old age of 37. In his 18th season, Nowitzki is still the man for the Mavs and the focal point for opposing defenses.
It’s not much fun to be the focal point for the Spurs’ defense, which limited Nowitzki to 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. San Antonio double-teamed Nowitzki when he posted up, forcing him to pass. They barely gave him room to breathe on pick-and-rolls, gladly giving the Mavs guards good looks to keep the big German from getting in a groove.
And the Mavs failed miserably to make the Spurs pay for their plan. According to SportVu data, Dallas made only 10 of 40 uncontested shots in the loss. Point guard Deron Williams was the biggest offender, missing all eight of his uncontested looks during a 4-of-16 shooting night, including a 20-footer that would have tied the score with 1 minute, 44 seconds remaining.
“I think if I hit a couple more shots, they might have to play things differently,” Williams said, willing to shoulder much of the blame for the loss.
Nowitzki, however, isn’t so sure that Williams knocking down a few jumpers would force teams to significantly alter their defensive schemes.
“The way I’ve been shooting it, they’ll probably still live with somebody else shooting it, obviously,” Nowitzki said.
That might come across as cocky -- although it was said in matter-of-fact fashion -- but it’s true. Nowitzki is off to a historically hot start, shooting 52.7 percent from the floor, 51.0 percent from 3-point range and 90.2 percent from the free-throw line.
The Mavs, as a whole, are disappointed with their shooting, particularly from the perimeter. A team that expected to be among the elite shooting squads ranks in the bottom half of the league in 3-point percentage (32.0) despite all the open looks created by the attention that Nowitzki commands.
“We believe that we’re a better shooting team from the outside than we were last year,” Nowitzki said. “We’ve got to keep stepping into the ones that are there and take them with confidence.”
The hope is that Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews, who are both coming off of major surgeries and have yet to find their 3-point stroke, can take some of the pressure off of Nowitzki as their health and conditioning continue to improve and they work their way into a rhythm. But there’s no doubt about who is the Mavs’ most potent offensive weapon.
But Dallas would likely get diminishing returns by riding Nowitzki too much. He feels good physically now, as evidenced by his back-to-back double-doubles, but he fears wearing down if the Mavs just pound the ball to him in the post. And the days of dumping the ball to him above the elbow and letting Dirk go to work off the dribble are pretty much done.
At this point in his career, Nowitzki prefers to get his shots in the flow of the offense. If he doesn’t have a good look, he’ll move the ball and trust his teammates.
“We’ve still got to find ways to get him the ball regardless,” Williams said.
The problem is every coach they face will try to come up with ways to prevent that from happening. Same as it has always been.