Superstars come in all shapes and sizes.
Not so their egos, which are supposed to start at XXL and only get bigger from there.
Maybe that's why Dirk Nowitzki's ``I'll-try-to-do-better'' plea, made on the eve of Dallas' elimination game Tuesday night against Golden State in the first round of the NBA playoffs, rubbed so many people the wrong way.
First, his coach lit into him.
``I'm tired of hearing about how they've taken him out of his game and any lack of confidence,'' Avery Johnson said. ``You're just not supposed to have that.''
Next, Nowitzki's teammates called a players-only meeting, ``just to make sure,'' Jason Terry explained, ``that everybody was on the same page.''
Then, the Warriors clawed their way back from a 21-point deficit to take a 112-103 lead with just over three minutes left and dared Nowitzki to do something he hadn't done in 19 quarters of playoff basketball this season - really, ever since Game 2 of the NBA finals a year ago: Step up.
What followed were a dozen points in a 15-0 run the Mavericks strung together to close out the game, including two clutch 3-pointers, a perfectly timed block on Matt Barnes' layup attempt and a half-dozen free throws. That moved the series to Game 6 in Oakland.
``We got on Dirk's back and he carried us,'' teammate Devean George said afterward. ``That's who he is for us.''
Not exactly.
Nowitzki can be a game-changer, to be sure, and anybody who watched him carry most of the offensive load for the Mavericks throughout their 67-win regular season wouldn't quibble with him collecting the MVP next week. But those comparisons the past few days to basketball's holy trinity - as in, ``Michael, Larry and Magic never would have backed down, no matter how many double-teams opponents threw their way'' - were overblown.
For one thing, Nowitzki just isn't that good. He's basically a first-rate shooter who rebounds adequately and doesn't play defense even that well. Nowitzki needs his teammates at least as much as they need him, which is all he was trying to explain when he said the Warriors' constant double-teaming was forcing him to find other ways to contribute, ``help out on defense more; hit the glass harder, as hard as I can, get some extra possessions; if I have a shot, try to knock it down and if I don't, move the ball and let someone else make a shot.''
It didn't help that Nowitzki's former coach, Don Nelson - working the other sideline and still nursing a grudge against Mavericks owner Mark Cuban - knew all of Nowitzki's weaknesses intimately. Or that his Warriors' team - small and fast, but rugged - presented matchup problems for Dallas at just about every spot on the floor.
That's why Golden State won six of its seven regular-season games against the Mavericks, who averaged four points less and allowed 14 more than they did against the rest of the league. Nelson knew that forcing someone - anyone - other than Nowitzki to beat him was Golden State's best chance to pull off an historic upset. After the Mavericks dropped three of the first four in the best-of-seven series, Nowitzki knew it, too.
This time, it was Josh Howard and Devin Harris who picked up the slack. And at the end, Nowitzki took advantage of all the free advice and asserted himself on the offensive end of the floor.
``He was more aggressive,'' Golden State's Baron Davis said. ``I thought he was trying to take the ball to the basket and post up. Our guys did a great job defending him. But he was able to get to the line.''
Those late-game heroics aside, Nowitzki refused to kid himself or anyone else. He insisted there won't be any more comebacks without a collective effort.
``This team has a lot of heart, a lot of pride,'' he said. ``We fought our way to the finals last year. We won some tough games on the road. This team will never give up.''
We'll find that out soon enough. The Mavericks were up two games to none against the Heat in the finals last year and ahead by 13 points in the third quarter, then inexplicably crumbled and got swept. Miami's Dwyane Wade single-handedly took control, providing Nowitzki with an uncomfortably up-close-and-personal view of how superstars impose their will on a series. Then, Wade dropped a backhanded compliment by suggesting that had the Mavericks' leader played better, they might have won instead.
The only thing this win bought Dallas and its leader is another chance
``I've seen him fight through adversity,'' Howard said about Nowitzki. ``This is the game he broke through.''
Good luck getting Nowitzki to admit as much.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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