Shawn Marion takes up challenge

DALLAS -- As Shawn Marion piled up more points and rebounds in April than during any other stretch in his two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki so marveled at him that he came up with a go-to line for the veritable elastic man long ago dubbed "The Matrix."

"He's turned back the clock on us," Nowitzki said more than once.

It's an interesting choice of words for the soon-to-be-33-year-old Nowitzki to use on the just-turned-33 Marion, who has one less season of NBA tread on his sneakers.

Nowitzki meant it as a compliment, but the interpretation seemed clear: This version of the Matrix had not been the ridiculously malleable and multi-dimensional one that Nowitzki twice faced running-and-gunning in the playoffs with the Phoenix Suns.

Yet entering Sunday night's pivotal Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Mavs might be staring at a 2-0 hole or possibly not even be here at all without him. They've depended on the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Marion to become a slashing, cutting threat beyond defending -- in order -- five-time champ Kobe Bryant, star of the future Kevin Durant and now the game's ultimate present-day weapon in LeBron James.

"He's been phenomenal just taking the challenge on both ends," Nowitzki said. "He can get up, he's athletic on the perimeter, he's long, he can contest shots. He's a good rebounder. But also on offense, he's been phenomenal. He's been cutting for us, he's been posting up. He's been getting offensive rebounds, put-backs. So he looks really comfortable right now. He's got a bounce in his step and it's fun to watch."

For all those reasons, TNT analyst and former NBA point guard Kenny Smith nicknamed Marion The Matrix after seeing him play in his first preseason game in 1999, the year the smash action thriller of the same name came out.

The Matrix, 12 seasons later, is in full "Reloaded" mode.

"Man, I'm just playing ball," Marion said. "And doing what I've got to do to help this team win. That's it."

His numbers in the Western Conference finals and through the first two games of the NBA Finals reflect it. He stepped up his scoring against the Oklahoma City Thunder to 14.2 points a game. Against the Heat, Marion is averaging 18.0 points on 57.7 percent shooting, 9.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks.

Those are comparable to the 6-8, 260-pound man he's guarding, the game's most powerful and explosive force. James is averaging 22.0 points on 54.8 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 0.5 blocks.

In Game 2, Marion and James both finished with 20 points and eight rebounds.

Yes, the Matrix is practically canceling out the King.

Marion is even hanging with James at the free throw line, having taken seven attempts to James' six, a strong indicator that James hasn't been able to make a living in the lane where his sheer power can be intimidating and a one-way ticket to the line.

James was slower to credit Marion for impeding his progress to the paint and turning him into more of a jump shooter -- he's already taken 12 3-pointers -- a trade-off the Mavs will take every time.

"I don't feel like it's one guy in this league that can stop me one-on-one," James said. "There's always a defense that's looking at me when I have the ball. He's the guy that's guarding me, but there's no one-on-one guy that can guard me."

James didn't issue that as a personal challenge to Marion but as simple fact. That's fine by Marion because if there's one area Matrix can always match the King, it is verbal swagger.

Just ask him about the gauntlet that is the Black Mamba, Durantula and the King.

"I've always been a defensive stopper. I've always played defense," Marion said. "I had to go from playing a 3 [small forward] to playing a power forward. There ain't many players in this league that can do that -- 6-7 and 225 pounds -- I don't think nobody can do that, probably, within the next generation coming."

Marion starts at small forward and replaces Nowitzki at power forward. In the latter stages of Game 2 when coach Rick Carlisle turned to a small lineup with three guards and Nowitzki, Marion technically manned the center position.

"I think Dirk was the 5. He was playing the bigger guy; I was playing the smaller guy," Marion said, followed by his patented chuckle. "If you want to break it down, then I think I was playing point because LeBron's been playing the point."

In adjusting his game the past two seasons, Marion has transformed it. He is no longer the jump shooter he was with the Suns. He posts up, scores on floaters and baby hooks in the lane and put-backs at the rim.

He started the season coming off the bench for the first time in his career. Injuries got him into the starting lineup in March and his play kept him there. In the playoffs, he's averaged 12.0 points a game, but he's scored 16 or more in four of the last five games, while averaging 38.4 minutes, 10 full minutes above his regular-season average.

He scored 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting in the Game 1 loss and was critical of too much play-calling bogging down the offense. In Game 2, he went for 20 on 9-of-14 shooting in 41 minutes with a much more freelancing offense.

At the moment, Marion is surprisingly a virtual equal scoring threat to the Heat as James -- with 24 and 20 points -- is to the Mavs.

Perhaps that is a personal challenge to the King.

"He's picked up his game offensively, hanging around the rim, getting some layups, getting some tip-backs," James said. "I take it upon myself to not only lock in at the beginning, but whoever is on him, to lock in a little bit more."

The Mavs will need the present-day Matrix to keep turning back the clock.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.