Nowitzki is Spurs' worst nightmare

DALLAS -- If Sunday night was Dirk Nowitzki getting lucky, then San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will have to come up with something more creative and a whole lot more effective than his third-quarter Hack-a-Damp for when Nowitzki is just plain good.

It was Nowitzki who called himself lucky, mentioning really just a few off-balance toss-ups early on that found the bottom of the net. Then just about everything he touched ripped nylon in a huge 36-point effort on just 14 shots.

Nowitzki made 12 of them and drained all 12 of his free throws. That's a final tally of 26 shots, 24 buckets and one perturbed Popovich, who mostly tried, unsuccessfully so, to employ single coverage on the Dallas Mavericks' star.

A few attempts at double coverage turned into a Mavericks layup drill and ultimately Pop took out his frustrations on the mediocre foul-shooting big man Erick Dampier in Dallas' 100-94 Game 1 victory at American Airlines Center.

"We wanted to put him at the line," Popovich said of the stiff-shooting Dampier, "and hoped he would miss free throws rather than Dirk killing us the way he was."

Nowitzki had just finished off a critical seven-point spree on three consecutive third-quarter possessions that moved the Mavs in front 67-61 less than two minutes after the Spurs had clawed their way back to take a 61-60 lead. Nowitzki brutalized overmatched reserve forward Matt Bonner each trip down.

On the third possession, Bonner got Nowitzki's arm, but the 7-footer still drained the 13-foot shot for the and-1. It was his 11th point of 13 in the decisive quarter and his 30th of 32 by the end of the third quarter.

The next three times down the floor, Popovich instructed guard Roger Mason Jr. to slap Dampier, bear-hug him, anything to draw a whistle and stop play before the ball could rotate to Nowitzki. Dampier made 1-of-2 on his first two trips and then hit both on the third straight Hack-a-Damp to keep the lead at six, 71-65 with 2:17 left in the quarter.

"I was surprised, but Pop, he's just like Nellie [Don Nelson]," Nowitzki said. "I played for Nellie for a long time and you got to be ready for everything with him. He's liable to do anything at any time. I actually thought Damp stepped up and made some big free throws."

Maybe it's a simple case of be careful what you ask for. Popovich swears he conceded the regular-season finale against the Mavs to rest his regulars and not as a message that he wanted the Mavs.

But maybe all the Mavs didn't take it that way. Maybe not even the even-keeled Nowitzki, who has never said a bad word about anyone -- not even Bruce Bowen.

"Dirk couldn't wait for the playoffs," Mavs guard J.J. Barea said. "The last game of the season he was so mad, he couldn't wait. He's ready, he's focused and he knows what he's got to do, and he's ballin'."

And the Spurs have a big problem. The 6-foot-10 Bonner and the 6-9 Antonio McDyess can't handle Nowitzki one-on-one. At other times, the Spurs tried to go small and agitate Nowitzki with Richard Jefferson and then even smaller with Keith Bogans, the closest the Spurs can get these days to replicating Bowen.

By halftime, Nowitzki had 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting and had taken three more free throws than the entire Spurs team. In the third quarter, he made all four of his field goal attempts and all five free throws to outduel Tim Duncan, who had 10 of his team-high 27 points in the quarter.

"Early on they weren't doubling and they were just going to sit in his lap and see what he was going to do, and early on he put a lot of pressure on them by taking the ball to the basket," said Mavs point guard Jason Kidd, who had a terrific game with 13 points -- including several big shots late -- 11 assists and eight rebounds. "And in that third quarter, he was great."

When the Spurs tried to come at him with a double-team in the fourth quarter, it didn't work, either. Nowitzki was adept at finding the open man, and the Mavs got good looks and made San Antonio pay. When he decided to keep it himself, he scored all four of his fourth-quarter points in succession, pushing an 89-84 lead to an insurmountable 93-84.

"I thought we had some great cutting going on when I caught the ball there in the fourth quarter when they came from the low side," Nowitzki said, singling out Jason Terry and Shawn Marion for the way they moved without the ball.

"You can't just sit there and watch. You have to have everybody involved, and the guys did a great job getting open."

Nowitzki won't hit 86 percent of his shots every game, but Game 1 showed how difficult the Spurs' job will be without the long, athletic defenders that seem to pester Nowitzki best. He can shoot over anyone they put on him in a one-and-one situation. And unlike past seasons, this Mavs team has four other players who average in double figures, making double-teaming a much greater risk.

Caron Butler was Nowitzki's main scoring complement Sunday with 22 points.

"When they were double-teaming, we were getting layups and everything," Marion said. "It's hard on rotations when you're double-teaming. When you have a team with the talented players we have, you can't do that. It's hard, but sometimes when you're small, you have no choice."

Nowitzki refers to Popovich as a defensive genius, and the Spurs' coach will scheme up something in the two days before Game 2 on Wednesday. Pop's options, however, seem to be limited.

"I mean, he's 7-foot and can shoot that J," Marion said. "It's hard guarding him when he's doing that. The best thing to do is hope he misses. But that's for them to decide."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.