Dirk Nowitzki's impact needs to grow

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Dirk Nowitzki is the game's best closer. Yes, better than Kobe Bryant.

Once again, he showed why Saturday night in Game 1 of the Dallas Mavericks' Western Conference quarterfinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he positioned the Mavs to win the series opener.

But it wasn't good enough.

This time.

Blame Kevin Durant.

The NBA's leading scorer hit a contested jumper over Shawn Marion with 1.5 seconds left to give the Thunder a 99-98 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

So Dirk's 11 fourth-quarter points provided little solace to himself or his teammates. Few will remember the two free throws he made with 9 seconds left, giving the Mavs a 98-97 lead.

Instead, the focus will be on Dirk's two turnovers in the closing minutes as Oklahoma City erased a seven-point lead in the final 2:56. There might even be some misguided chatter on why Dirk started his drive to the bucket with 9 seconds left, when he could have milked more time off the clock.

Those are legitimate questions, but they cloud the bigger issue.

If you're honest, the Mavs did Saturday night what they've done all season: fritter away games at the end.

It hasn't mattered whether they've done it with turnovers. Or with their opponents hitting buzzer-beaters. Bottom line: No magical playoff switch exists that the Mavs can flip to fix many of the flaws their opponents exposed during the season.

We're talking about a team seeded seventh in the Western Conference, one that finished 13-20 on the road and 7-8 in games decided by three points or fewer.

The Mavs did everything they were supposed to do to beat Oklahoma City and still couldn't get the win.

Durant made just 10 of 27 shots. The Mavs shot more free throws (25-20) and grabbed more defensive (42-36) and offensive (10-9) rebounds than Oklahoma City.

There's more.

The Mavs led 73-69 entering the fourth quarter, so this seems like a good time to tell you Dallas had been 31-2 with a fourth-quarter lead. Only Indiana (34-2) and Boston (31-2) were as good or better.

Still, the Mavs lost.

"We have to create our own breaks," Dirk said. "For some reason, all season long, down the stretch teams are making one more play or getting one more bounce than us.

"We were right there, when the game was there for the taking and we needed one more play, but we didn't come up with it. Last year, all the way around we came up with those bounces and we were the one on top. This year, too many times in close games we have a losing record. It's tough."

And, as you know, it won't be getting any easier. Oklahoma City has now beaten the Mavs four times in five games.

For that trend to change, Dirk must be even more of an impact player on offense.

He scored 25 points but made only eight of 18 shots. He did get to the free throw line 10 times, making nine -- an indication he was being aggressive and not settling for jumpers.

But as the Mavs' only proven scorer, he must do more.

Dallas can't expect Jason Terry to score 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in Game 2. Nor can it expect Marion to score 17 points.

Oklahoma City used Serge Ibaka to cover Dirk, which is normal. The Thunder also used center Kendrick Perkins on him in the fourth quarter, which is abnormal.

They used James Harden to double-team him, resulting in steals by Harden and Perkins in the final 90 seconds.

It's a lot to ask, but Dirk must be even better.

Rick Carlisle said Dirk's offensive efficiency would increase if Oklahoma City's players weren't allowed to grab him. And hold him. And tug on him whether he has the ball or not.

"I've seen this for four years," Carlisle said. "Dirk Nowitzki is the hardest guy in the league to guard because if you back off of him he's going to make the shot, so people grab and hold him all of the time. He shows incredible restraint in those areas.

"Oklahoma is being physical with him, but we're going to keep coming at those guys."

It starts and ends with Dirk. It's not fair, but that's the Mavs' reality.