This is part two of the two part series "Dissecting the Finals". Yesterday, we dug deep into the role LeBron James plays on the Heat and today we look into Dirk's role as he attempts to win his first ever NBA championship.
Dirk Nowitzki has been a focal point of media attention since the 2006 Finals when the Dallas Mavericks had an epic collapse to the Miami Heat. While it was a team loss, most of the blame had fallen to Nowitzki. He became known as a “soft” big player, afraid of contact and physical play.
How wrong those critics were. Nowitzki has played through several injuries throughout his career, even this series. After jamming his finger in Game One he came out with new resolve in Game Two to take it to the Heat.
But one could argue he has been a player who avoided contact, who settled for the fade away jumpshot (or in his case, the stumble-away). He wasn’t always the guy willing to take it strong to the hoop.
And then, at the end of Game Two, Dirk helped spur (forgive me Scott) a vicious comeback, cutting the 15 point deficit in just seven minutes, culminating in a left Nowtizki push to the hoop to take the lead permanently.
So what happened? How did Dirk go from shunning contact to pushing it in the final seconds? To truly see the answer, we have to analyze the Mavericks season. In my mind, this is how the Mavericks have evolved from 06 playoff choke to being three wins away from a title.
For starters, this team is not the same Dallas team that flamed out (again, forgive the pun) against the Heat in 2006. Far from it. The addition of Tyson Chandler has been a God-send for the Mavs. He has brought the whole team together on the defensive end, serving as the anchor for the paint.
Jason Kidd, long known as a penetrating point guard and excellent distributor, learned from Dirk the art of the 3-point shot, and added one more thing to his aging arsenal.
Jason Terry continued to be the JET. If he’s open, chances are his shot is going in. He can be disruptive on defense, and with his boisterous attitude, can get the crowd into any game (or turn the opposing fans against him completely).
I mention these players because there is a web created between them and Dirk. One that has created the player you see today. He has always been a deadly shooter, nearly impossible to defend when he’s on. Really, the only person who could take him out was himself.
But, Nowitzki evolved with these players. With Chandler, he began to play more stifling defense, willing to get physical and sacrifice his body to keep players in front of him. The physical play helped him transition his game on the offensive end, not afraid to make contact and get the foul call or the possible three point play. He knows when to back someone down, take it to the hoop, and when necessary, go back to the ol’ trusty jumpshot.
With Kidd, he displayed a level of leadership, standing up with another captain of the team, showing him how to make his game even more dangerous. In doing so, more defenders must close on Kidd, leaving Nowitzki more free to move against a defense.
And with Terry, a player that even some Dallas fans think is a punk, Dirk has been unafraid to get in his face and keep him under control. Before, Nowtizki’s leadership was even in question. Now, he’ll get in the face of one of the biggest hot-heads in the NBA to make sure he stays the course. With his teammates, Dirk evolved over the course of one season, even more so in the playoffs.
So at the end of it all, when Dirk made that layup with just seconds left on the clock, a left handed layup at that, it was a culmination of Nowitzki’s progress. He had thrown off the soft moniker, shown he could be clutch and that he could take control of his team. The Heat learned it was not wise to taunt the Mavs, not until the game is truly over.
But with Dirk Nowitzki, is it ever really over?