Let the crucifixion of Dirk Nowitzki officially begin.
You know the story: The Dallas Mavericks won 67 games this season -- which tied for the sixth best win total in NBA history -- but still got eliminated in the first round by the Golden State Warriors, a team that won only 42 games and qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. And the Mavs weren't just eliminated, mind you. They personally established several new "greatest playoff upset" records that will be talked about and rehashed for years to come. That's humiliation on a grand and historic scale.
Mr. "MVP-to-be" Nowitzki averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds in the series, but he shot 38 percent from the field and 21 percent from three-point range -- 12 and 20 percent dropoffs from his regular season totals. The final game of the series was also his worst: 8 points on 2-for-13 shooting, 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 turnovers. But the numbers don't really tell the whole story. Dirk was a non-factor througout the series, and most of the time you could hardly even tell he was on the court. He played a total of 239 minutes, but he looked like an MVP for only three of them. That 3-minute tour de force staved of elimination and produced a couple days worth of "Dirk earned his MVP" stories, but in the end it only delayed the inevitable.
Make no mistake, though. This was a team loss. Only Josh Howard picked up his game (21 PPG, 10 RPG, 51 percent shooting) in the playoffs. The rest of the Mavericks sunk like a turd in the toilet, both offensively and defensively. The Mavericks had more talent, more depth, and more playoff experience than the Warriors. They also had that "we should've been the champs last year" swagger that underscored their desire to win the championship this year. Then simply got outplayed.
Last summer, after disappearing in the NBA Finals, Dirk took some shrapnel, but he's definitely going to fall on the grenade for this one. In some ways, it's unfair. After all, he didn't establish the de facto rule that the MVP has to be the best player from one of the best teams in the league. And it's not his fault that the media seemed to decide, en masse, that Steve Nash simply couldn't be allowed to win a third straight MVP. If he is indeed named MVP, as everyone suspects, it will be by default. He didn't ask for the award, or the weight of expectations that go with it.
That's how it work, though, and this will forever be remembered as the series that in which the MVP didn't come through.
But I don't blame Dirk. Not completely, anyway. Yes, I do think he should have done more to expand his game this season, particularly by taking advantage of his size and playing closer to the basket. Everybody likes to compare Nowitzki to Larry Bird, who also had a dynamite outside shot but was terribly slow afoot. In 1984, the Lakers employed the same tactic against Bird that the Warriors used against Nowitzki: using a smaller, quicker defender to either deny him the ball or keep a hand in his face at all times. Bird's adjustment was the obvious one: take his defender, Michael Cooper, down low and beat the crap out of him. It worked.
Why didn't Dirk do the same thing? I guess it's just not his game. But that's when the coaching staff and his teammates need to step in and say, "Uh, Dirk, you're half a foot taller than the guy guarding you. Maybe you should get into the post." That's not rocket science, people. It's Basketball 101. How could they miss that?
I think the Mavericks got complacent. They made the NBA Finals last year and they rampaged through the regular season this year. But they did it with a lot of outside shooting and one-on-one play. Over the past three seasons, they've won 58, 60, and 67 games while being one of the worst passing teams in the league. Didn't anyone realize how much the Mavericks relied on Dirk shooting over people? And on Jason Terry and Josh Howard taking their man off the dribble?
And it didn't help that the team wasn't mentally prepared. They coasted through the last couple weeks, and the starters barely played in the last three or four games of the regular season. Meanwhile the Warriors were fighting for their playoff lives, winning nine of their last ten and 16 of 21 overall. They were psyched, their fans were psyched, and the Mavericks were just twiddling their thumbs waiting for the coronation.
It's happened before. The 1999-2000 Lakers also won 67 games but got pushed to the limit in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. But nobody remembers that because they managed to win the series and, a few weeks later, the title. But that's history for you. It's incredibly kind to the winners, and exceptionally cruel to the losers.