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Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki speaks softly but carries a big game

The 7-foot forward, no comedian off the court, is deadly serious on it, taking his play to new levels in the playoffs while leading Dallas to the NBA Finals against Miami, starting Tuesday.

May 30, 2011|By Mike Bresnahan
  • Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki flashes three fingers after hitting a three-point shot against the Lakers in the third quarter of Game 2 in the Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center.
Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki flashes three fingers after hitting a… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Dirk Nowitzki takes the microphone out of its stand and holds it with a sly smile on his face, as if he's ready to begin zinging at a roast.

But that's about as exciting as the Dallas Mavericks forward gets. He sinks into a chair on a dais and stares vacantly at the table in front of him while answering reporters' questions with a slightly accented monotone.

Not much had happened 30 minutes earlier, only the Mavericks' second-ever trip to the NBA Finals in the franchise's 31-year existence.

Nowitzki's deceptive, though. It's too clichéd to say he's a man of actions, not words, as Dallas begins the NBA Finals on Tuesday against the Miami Heat.

Before judging Nowitzki, you'd have to experience the action part in person on a night before one of their playoff games.

He will arrive at a quiet arena and soon have a ball in hand. No shot clock, no defenders, no All-Star votes or championship trophies to be earned that particular night.

"He constantly works on his game," Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle said. "Look, he shoots every night during the playoffs so he keeps things tuned up."

Then Carlisle pauses.

"He's really into winning."

Winning a championship, however, is the last thing left to accomplish in a 13-year career that's been on a strong enough uptick the last six weeks to draw comparisons to the sacred Larry Bird.

Nowitzki has been sublime since the playoffs began, averaging 28.4 points, shooting an identical 52% from two-point and three-point range, and missing only 10 of 140 free throws (93% accuracy).

He's a little down on himself for his rebounding (7.5 a game), but it's hard to criticize anybody who averaged 25 points in a sweep of the Lakers and 32 points against the supposedly speedier Oklahoma City Thunder.

And to think people wondered about him at the midpoint of the season after a mysterious injury sidelined him for three weeks. It was officially called a sprained right knee, but it seemed more than that, costing him more games (nine) than he'd ever missed in his career for an injury.

He came back slowly, dragging his leg behind him and putting together a strange string of games in February, including a 12-point effort against Cleveland followed by 10 points against Sacramento.

Nowitzki, who turns 33 in a few weeks, is definitely back, trailing compliments behind him in his remarkable postseason run.

"I don't think no one can singlehandedly stop Dirk," said Miami forward LeBron James. "He's a shot maker, one of the best shot makers we've ever had in this league. It looks like a bad shot if you don't know basketball or you don't know his game — one-legged fade-aways off the glass and pull-up jumpers off the dribble, pump fake, pump fake, fade-away. Things like that."

Things that have been especially notable in the playoffs.

Nowitzki practically ended Oklahoma City's hopes with his Game 4 effort in the Western Conference finals. He had 12 points in the final 3 minutes 15 seconds, including a pair of off-balance, up-and-under moves as Dallas came back from a 15-point deficit to win in overtime.

"I thought he was good . . . now he's phenomenal," Miami guard Dwyane Wade said. "Obviously, the shot-making ability is one of the best this league has seen. But I think what he's gotten better at is taking over games in the fourth quarter. It seems like he's taking more shots or he's made a bigger impact. I think he's a hungrier player and even a more efficient player than in '06."

That's a time and place Nowitzki doesn't like to talk about.

Dallas had a 2-0 series lead on Miami in the 2006 Finals and led by 13 late in Game 3 before completely collapsing and somehow losing four consecutive games.

"I almost felt like we had unfinished business after '06," Nowitzki said. "We're here again at the big stage. Hopefully, we can turn it around this year and finish strong."

Only Nowitzki and Jason Terry remain from that Dallas team. Wade and Udonis Haslem are the only ones still with Miami.

This collection of Mavericks seems more balanced than that one.

"It's tough to double [Nowitzki] because they have so many great shooters around him," Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant grumbled after being eliminated. "They have a great team."

It might be enough to get that first elusive title for Nowitzki. If that happens, it's easy to foresee his words catching up to his actions.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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