Success is bittersweet for best buds Nash and Nowitzki

DALLAS -- They are two wins away from the NBA Finals. Both of them.

They also know that this difficult assignment -- beating your best friend in basketball to get there -- is not over in two or three more games.

It might be years before it's over, actually.

The team Steve Nash left? Dirk Nowitzki has it closer to a championship than it's ever been.

The team Nash rejoined? He has it threatening to make a fairy-tale trip to the Finals without the injured Amare Stoudemire ... and with Amare coming back next season.

In other words …

Chances are good that Dallas vs. Phoenix, which tends to be distilled to Nowitzki vs. Nash, is bound to become an every-spring thing for the next few springs at least. In one round of the playoffs or another.

Who knows how many times they'll have to go through this?

"I think we realize that things aren't going to change anytime soon," Nowitzki said.

To get you as ready as they are for the final swings of their second successive playoff showdown, the following FAQ analyzes and updates how their games and friendship have developed while they duel to settle who's best in the new West:

How much are they interacting during the series?

Not a ton face-to-face, but that's not because their coaches and teammates protest. There might be a private grumble here and there that they shouldn't be fraternizing, but the bigger limitation is that there isn't much time in a playoff series anyway with all the travel. It's been similar to their reunion in the second round of the playoffs last spring, when they were able to grab a couple meals on off nights.

On the eve of this series, they met Nowitzki's longtime coach and advisor Holger Geschwindner and close mutual friend Nick Creme for dinner, where Nowitzki was greeted with a rousing ovation from restaurant patrons after he led Dallas past San Antonio in a seven-game epic.

The ex-teammates also hung out at Nash's Phoenix-area house on the eve of Tuesday's Game 4, giving Nowitzki some bonding time with Nash's 19-month-old twin girls, Lola and Bella. To keep the 7-footer from Dallas on the kids' radar, Nash's wife Alejandra will point him out whenever Nowitzki flashes across the TV screen.

Tio Loco, she calls him to the children. Crazy Uncle.

Nash and Nowitzki say there are generally more jokes than hoop talk at these gatherings or when they text message, although Nash couldn't resist pointing something out to his pal when they sat down to dine before Game 1.

"One of us," Nash said, "is going to the [expletive] NBA Finals.


If it's hard for either one to believe, there's a good reason. They both became Mavericks on draft day in 1998, and this will be the first June since then that the Western Conference is not represented in the Finals by either San Antonio or the Lakers.

Why does it seem like they guard each other for a few possessions every game?

Both teams are frequently switching pick-and-rolls, which occasionally leaves Nowitzki out by the 3-point line trying to keep Nash from blowing by him ... or leaves Nash trying to keep Nowitzki from backing him down to the free-throw line (or closer) and sinking a gimme jumper.

It's really nothing new, though. As teammates, they played several one-on-one games every week as part of their shared routine to go back to the gym for extra shooting at night after morning practices.

"We shot a lot more than we played one-on-one, but we had all sorts of [games]," Nowitzki said. "One-on-one on the perimeter, one-on-one down low, Running H-O-R-S-E."

And when they end up matched against each other now?

"I think back to the Landry Center," Nowitzki said, recalling the practice facility Dallas used before American Airlines Center opened with its own practice court in 2001. "We shot for hours and hours back in the day. So it is a little weird to be doing it in the Western Conference finals."

As for who has the advantage when one ends up guarding the other in real life...

"I think we both know each other's moves really well, but so does the rest of the league," Nowitzki said. "I know exactly what he wants to do out there and he knows exactly what I want to do. Either way you want to look at it, it's a mismatch."

In what areas has the split been beneficial?

Nash conceded last week that his departure took Nowitzki "out of a comfort zone" and helped force him to diversify his offense. No longer could Nowitzki rely on the trusty pick-and-pop to get free for open jumpers.

Dallas still doesn't have a guard who consistently can create shot opportunities for him. Countless times in the Mavericks' second-round series with San Antonio, Nowitzki would be shadowed by a smaller defender at his high-post perch … but the ball wouldn't come even when he offered a high target. Devin Harris and Jason Terry can do a lot of the tough stuff -- like getting to the rim routinely against the mighty Spurs or sinking the clutchest of jumpers -- but both struggle with simple passes. Neither one is a convincing playmaker.

But now Nowitzki fills that void. He has become Dallas' foremost playmaker. He sports a much more well-rounded game in Year 2 of the separation, having returned from a long summer of introspection back home in Germany following the six-game playoff loss to Phoenix with a more refined low-post game and more dependable ballhandling.

Smaller, quicker defenders admittedly flummoxed Nowitzki in his first playoffs without Nash. Now he backs them in for high-quality looks or punishes the extra defensive attention he attracts by passing crisply out of double-teams.

Yet that's not all. With Avery Johnson demanding far more than Don Nelson did, Nowitzki is a bigger rebounding presence, spends more time in the paint at both ends and no longer ranks as a defensive liability, all while relying less and less on the 3-point rainbows that made him the sweetest-shooting 7-footer this sport has ever seen.

Nash, meanwhile, certainly wouldn't have won back-to-back MVP awards had he stayed in Dallas as Nowitzki's setup man (or probably even one). Leaving Dallas, then, pitched him to a new level of fame. After all, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan are the only other guards in history to win two successive MVPs.

Yet more valuable to Nash than those trophies that sit side-by-side on a simple cabinet near his kitchen is the spark he got from the messy Mavs divorce.

Mark Cuban's reluctance to offer more than $36 million guaranteed over four seasons, when Phoenix was offering $60 million guaranteed over six, took Nash back to his youth. No longer was he a two-time All-Star who thought he had finally made it. Cuban's oft-stated concerns about Nash's body holding up as he advanced into his 30s made him feel like he did when folks back in his native British Columbia scoffed at his NBA dreams.

"In Steve's mind," said Nash's brother Martin, a soccer pro and longtime member of Canada's national team, "he was an underdog again."

That prompted Nash, after all the workouts with Nowitzki in Dallas, to train harder than ever. He worked out five hours a day, five days a week, in the summer of 2004 with Vancouver physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, one of Martin's former soccer teammates.

Celebrini's program redefined Nash's core better than any Bowflex could, giving him what Suns patriarch Jerry Colangelo describes as "a totally different body" than Nash had when Phoenix drafted him in 1996.

The result? Nash is somehow more athletic as a sleeker 32-year-old than he was in his 20s. Combine that with veteran wisdom, new rules limiting defensive contact on the perimeter and total freedom granted by a coach whose system was tailor-made for Nash and you have a player reborn. (It also doesn't hurt that, when Stoudemire's healthy, Nash has a more devastating finisher in pick-and-rolls than any point guard ever has had before.)

"I just think he's getting better as he's getting older," D'Antoni said.

Yet both are clearly better leaders, too, as you'd expect with age.

"They're just two great players," D'Antoni said. "The only thing I can see is they might have taken on more responsibility when they separated and that could have helped each one, especially Dirk.

"But you know what? They'd be great in any system. They're just [two] of the top five players in the league, probably."

In what areas has the split hurt them?

As long as one team doesn't dominate the rivalry -- as long as both wind up with at least one championship ring in their careers -- there probably won't be many regrets.

However …

What if only one of them wins a ring? What if neither does?

As good as they've proven to be, both somehow raising the ceilings on their potential after splitting up, they are bound to wonder what would have happened had they stayed together.

"We're both making the best out of the situation," Nowitzki said. "But we both thought we'd finish our careers together in Dallas, that's for sure."

Said Nash: "I'll always believe that Dirk and I had a chance to win a championship. That's why I was so disappointed to leave. It's a little bit sad that we couldn't become teammates as we were reaching our peak."

But what about the widespread theory that the Mavs wouldn't be as good as they are now had they kept Nash?

Absolute nonsense.

This is an increasingly popular theory in Dallas because Nash, over the years, became the primary scapegoat for the team's defensive woes of yore. What this theory conveniently overlooks is the list of long and rangy athletes Dallas has added since Nash's departure.

He never got to play alongside Devin Harris or DeSagana Diop. He played with Nowitzki in his Irk days -- no D -- and with a center (Shawn Bradley) who was not trusted or respected by his teammates. As the Suns found out for half the regular season, until Kurt Thomas got hurt, Nash is a passable team defender if you have good defenders and athletes around him like Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Thomas.

The theory that Nash was somehow stunting his buddy's growth is hilarious when you say it out loud. Nowitzki would have expanded his game with or without Nash because (a) he's that good, and (b) Johnson demanded it.

Nash's departure, furthermore, didn't make this Dirk's team. That happened through Michael Finley's departure in the summer of 2005. Even though Finley willingly scaled back his game over the years as Nowitzki and Nash progressed, those two never treated the Mavs as anything other than Finley's team out of respect for the third shooter and elder statesman of a close-knit Big Three.

Another myth: Harris wouldn't have the role he has now if Nash had stayed. Wrong. Harris, remember, was drafted a few weeks before Nash left. He could be understudying Nash now or playing alongside him, a la Nash and Leandro Barbosa in Phoenix.

Think it might have made a difference in the last of those Sacramento series if a player like Harris had been guarding Mike Bibby instead of Nash, who also had to deal with a vintage Doug Christie at the other end? Think Nash could have drastically cut his regular-season minutes load if he had had a teammate like Harris?

Don't forget, furthermore, that the guy who wound up getting the cash that didn't go to Nash -- Erick Dampier -- was giving Dallas absolutely nothing this season until Johnson benched him halfway through. It'll be handy to have Dampier in the Finals if the Mavs can get there, whether they get Miami or Detroit, but it's getting tougher to keep bulky centers with limited skills on the floor in today's up-tempo world.

Johnson played with Dampier in Golden State and pushed for the sign-and-trade that brought him to Dallas, so that's his move as much as anyone's. It's thus unreasonable to expect him to question publicly the wisdom of letting Nash go, especially in the midst of a Dallas-Phoenix series.

Yet you suspect that Johnson, a point guard at heart who's still searching for a coach on the floor, wouldn't protest if he could get Nash back. He was willing, at the very least, to shoot down the notion before Game 1 that Nash and Nowitzki couldn't have flourished for him as they did for Nelson.

"Sure they could have co-existed," Johnson said.


Does Nowitzki ever get mad at Nash for leaving?

Nowitzki chuckled softly when I asked him again this week.

"No," he said. "Steve had to make that decision. He had to make the right decision for himself and for the security of his family. The money difference was too much. At some point, everybody's got to be a little bit selfish. More than anything, he felt a little disrespected by [Dallas'] offer."

OK, then.

What about being mad at Cuban for not offering Nash more?

Nowitzki says there's no need there, either, because "we replaced great players [Nash and Finley] with great players."

As valuable as Nash has suddenly become in a league increasingly drive-and-kick friendly, it's hard to argue with that sentiment when Dallas sits two wins shy of the first Finals berth in franchise history. Better yet for Nowitzki and Cuban, this wasn't the Mavericks' best shot to finally get past San Antonio -- referred to by Dirk as the "big brother" that beat them up for years -- and win the West. It was their best shot so far. Best shot implies last shot. This is a team with a healthy future in spite of the Nash departure.

Nowitzki turns 28 in June. The Mavs will have the opportunity at season's end to keep their new core together -- and keep developing it -- or use their surplus of young talent to pursue upgrades via trade.

They have a variety of options because many of the moves made just before and right after Nash's controversial departure were masterstrokes. Drafting Josh Howard when 20-something teams passed him up. Swapping Antawn Jamison for a more aggressive sixth man (Jerry Stackhouse) and the draft rights to Harris. Signing Diop and Adrian Griffin off the scrap heap and turning them into defensive difference-makers. Absorbing Keith Van Horn via trade as a very expensive seventh man … but a nice luxury if you can afford it.

Cuban is fond of pointing out that Dirk is one of his older players, meaning that Dallas is an elite team at the same time that it's retooling around him. It's a rare feat that keeps the Nash debate somewhat muted during the regular season … until the Nowitzki-Nash-Cuban triangle winds up in a playoff series and cranks everything up again.

Is it true that the mere sight of Cuban puts spring in Nash's legs?

You can probably guess the answer here, right?

As Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry said before Game 1 last week: "In this building, Steve's always going to have fuel."

What we haven't had so far, through four games, is any public interaction between Nash and Cuban. We did see a couple of postgame handshakes in the teams' second-round meeting a year ago … although not after Phoenix won Game 6 in Dallas in overtime.

The animosity, obviously, is pretty real, undoubtedly exacerbated by the huge numbers Nash posted in the teams' first playoff encounter when Dallas swarmed Stoudemire and dared Nash to be a score-first point guard. D'Antoni repeatedly has used the word "vengeance" to describe Nash's motivation during his first season back in Phoenix.

Yet Nash doesn't have much to say about Cuban these days and vice versa. Asked at the start of the series how he would answer questions about this matchup serving as another referendum on letting Nash go, Cuban said he planned to respond by saying: "Come up with new questions. [Nash] has been gone for two years."

Will it get any easier, over time, to keep meeting like this when the stakes are so high?

We're not accustomed to seeing these kinds of friendships in the NBA. We're far more accustomed to dissecting relationships like Shaq and Kobe's.

That's why the Nash-Nowitzki bond will be the focal point of every playoff series they ever share.

I have to say, though, that Nowitzki and Nash seem to diffuse the awkwardness as coolly as possible, probably because they're basically like family after all these years. They officially joined the Mavericks in a joint press conference back in June 1998 and quickly became inseparable.

Nash's first season in town was by far the worst of his career, in part because of a nasty fall in a pickup game during the NBA lockout that led to the back and spine issues he's been playing through ever since. Yet he spent a good bit of that debut season in Dallas nurturing a homesick Nowitzki through a nightmare rookie season that initially had him wondering if he could handle America.

It's an undeniably unusual challenge to scrap with a close friend for such high stakes, and doubly so knowing there's a good chance they'll be in a similar spot next season and the season after that. But they haven't forgotten how laughable it would have been to dream up any of this eight years ago.

"I think it'll get a little easier over time," Nowitzki said. "Seeing him in another uniform, it's not so strange anymore. But I can't say it'll ever be like playing just another opponent. It'll never be that way."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.