Similar Spurs scheme throws Dirk off

DALLAS -- How could Gregg Popovich not react to Dirk Nowitzki's Game 1 offensive brilliance with a steady diet of double-teams?

"I might be just dumb," Popovich said. "I don't know."

As foolish as the strategy appeared a few days ago, Popovich sure seems pretty smart with his San Antonio Spurs heading home with a split.

Nowitzki, fresh off one of his most efficient playoff performances, never got in a rhythm during the Dallas Mavericks' 102-88 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Dirk and everybody else in Dallas expected the Spurs to force the ball out of the hands of the Mavs' MVP after he poured in 36 points on 12-of-14 shooting in the series opener. However, for the most part, Popovich kept the Spurs' defensive schemes pretty simple, defending Dirk with one man the majority of the night.

Not exactly defensive genius, which is the phrase Nowitzki used to describe the coach he's facing for the fifth time in a playoff series, but it worked. Nowitzki needed 24 shots to get 24 points in a game that the Mavs never led.

"I felt great about the looks that I got," said Nowitzki, who contributed to the Mavs' 36.5 percent shooting by going 9-of-24 from the floor. "I've just got to make them. I kept trying, kept working, kept trying to get to the basket a little bit and just mix it up. It was just unfortunately one of those nights."

Without talking trash, Nowitzki made it clear that he'd like to see the same defensive scheme again Friday night in San Antonio. All due respect to Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and the rest of the Spurs, but Nowitzki has reason to be confident that he can score at will in one-on-one situations against those guys.

It certainly helped the Spurs' cause that Nowitzki picked up a pair of fouls in the first few minutes of the game, sending him to the bench and spoiling his chance to get in an early groove again.

Not that Nowitzki used that as an excuse. Spurs star Tim Duncan also dealt with early foul trouble. He managed to finish with 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting and 17 rebounds, dominating down the stretch after the Mavs made a run to make the game interesting.

"I stayed out of foul trouble the rest of the night," said Nowitzki, who was 5-of-6 from the free throw line the day after Popovich made a point of complimenting him for selling fouls so well. "I had enough good looks to find a rhythm. I just didn't."

In last season's series, Popovich's top priority was getting the ball out of the big German's hands. Nowitzki put up pedestrian numbers by superstar standards, but Dallas dismissed the Spurs (minus Manu Ginobili) in five games.

So far this series, Popovich has mixed in a handful of double-teams, but he's basically letting the slugger know which pitch is coming. Nowitzki knocked the fastball out of the park in Game 1 but struck out swinging Wednesday night.

"Dirk's seen everything," Popovich said. "We're not going to trick him with anything, or give him anything he hasn't seen before."

What you don't see very often is Nowitzki struggling when teams treat him to single coverage. But once was enough for the Spurs to seize home-court advantage against their Interstate 35 rivals.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.