At this point, there's no NBA player that is as unstoppable offensively as Dirk Nowitzki. We're starting with the conclusion, and it's an apt way to begin after Nowitzki scored 48 points on 15 shots to lead the Dallas Mavericks to a 121-112 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
It's hard to think of a more impressive single-game playoff performance ever put together by someone not-named Michael Jordan. Since 1987, no player has ever scored over 45 points in a playoff game while taking less than 20 shots. Nowitzki's true shooting percentage, which incorporates three-pointers an free throws, was 93.9, the highest mark by a long shot in NBA Playoffs history. If Nowitzki just made all of his shots as three-pointers, he would have scored fewer points than he did.
All this against a team that can give him a lot of different looks with their primary defenders, whether it's length (Serge Ibaka), dogged fundamentals (Nick Collison), toughness (Kendrick Perkins, maybe), quickness (Thabo Sefolosha) or star-vs-star (Kevin Durant). This shot chart is something to behold.
Nothing can take away Nowitzki's game. But unstoppable? That's a bigger jump. Thunder fans will claim (somewhat fairly) that their team had no chance last night, with referees calling fouls on defenders who breathed on Dirk. This robbed them of their ability to guard Nowitzki aggressively and forced a lot of odd matchups. Whether all those fouls were correct calls or not, we can assume that Dirk won't get as many whistles going forward. He's not going to score 48 points on 15 shots again. But even if you cut his free throw makes in half, Dirk would still have scored 36 points on 15 shots. Dallas can certainly live with that.
Hence, unstoppable. The bottom line is that all the defensive strategies a team used to be able to use on Nowitzki to slow him just don't work anymore. He and his team have mastered them all, leaving you pretty much powerless. Nowitzki was always great, but this year, he's taken his understanding of the game up a notch, with the help of his teammates and his coach. Below, a quick summary of some of those strategies and why they don't work anymore.
Pushing him out of his spot
- SUMMARY: Denying Nowitzki the ball in the post, forcing him to catch further away from the basket and staying right in his face.
- REASON IT SOMETIMES WORKED: Nowitzki wasn't always the best at dealing with contact.
- PAST EXAMPLES: David West did a great job of doing this in the 2008 playoffs, when the Hornets eliminated Dallas in five games in the first round.
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK NOW: Nowitzki has dramatically improved his ability to get position, using angles to give his point guard a passing angle and sometimes screening for the ball-handler to give himself a head start. He gets much bigger now and doesn't let his defender get around him.
Fronting and sending the pass to the baseline
- SUMMARY: Putting your primary defender in front of Nowitzki, keeping weakside help around the basket and force the pass down to the right baseline, where Nowitzki isn't as lethal because he's better shooting to his left.
- REASON IT SOMETIMES WORKED: Nowitzki was better shooting to his left. Also, it made it easier for teams to align their help defense in case they want to double team.
- PAST EXAMPLES: The Spurs have had their issues with Dirk over the years, but when they guarded him well, this was how. The Lakers also tried this before and succeeded relatively well until this year's playoffs.
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK NOW: The 2008 trade for Jason Kidd helps most here. Kidd is the best in the league at putting a post entry pass on the money, and he'll find a way to get Dirk the ball one way or the other. Coach Rick Carlisle has also had Dirk set up for position on the perimeter instead of on the block, giving Kidd more space to get the ball into him.
Double-teaming from the top of the key
- SUMMARY: Sending a man down from the center of the court to double Nowitzki on the catch and force him to give the ball up.
- REASON IT SOMETIMES WORKED: Nowitzki wasn't a great passer out of double teams, and the Mavericks' weakside spacing wasn't great.
- PAST EXAMPLES: Golden State in 2007
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK NOW: Nowitzki is so much better at finding the open man, and the Mavericks' spacing is worlds better. The advantage of having Kidd is that the Mavericks can station their best shooter in the corner. Teams often take away the first pass, but Dallas always finds an open shot when they keep rotating the ball. Also, Shawn Marion is really good at cutting and finding openings around the basket, which either result in layups or clearer passing lanes for Nowitzki to the perimeter.
Guarding Nowitzki with a smaller defender
- SUMMARY: Treating Nowitzki like a perimeter player and guarding him with a wing player instructed to cut off his drives and stay in his body without worrying as much about Dirk shooting over the top.
- REASON IT SOMETIMES WORKED: Dirk is essentially a perimeter player, and he had trouble getting on balance when shooting over someone like this.
- PAST EXAMPLES: Golden State in 2007
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK NOW: Nowitzki has developed the perfect counter move: a one-footed fadeaway that gives him the separation he needs. He also uses shot fakes extremely well to force small defenders up in the air, and has mastered a series of jab steps that give him even more separation.
Double-teaming after he starts dribbling
- SUMMARY: Confusing Nowitzki with a double team after he catches the ball, whether it's a hard double team or what's known as a "one-swipe," where defenders reach in trying to strip Nowitzki as he's making his patented spin move.
- REASON IT WORKED SOMETIMES: Without an explosive first step, Nowitzki's primary means of getting to the basket was that spin move, and teams learned to key on it and attack at the perfect time.
- PAST EXAMPLES: The Nuggets used to do this very well, using their quickness on the perimeter.
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK ANYMORE: Nowitzki has studied hard and now can tell when defenders are coming to do this. There were several times on Tuesday where he picked up his dribble at the perfect time, leading to a three by Jason Terry or Peja Stojakovic.
Staying attached to his hip on pick and rolls and taking everyone else away
- SUMMARY: Just don't leave him under any costs.
- REASON IT WORKED SOMETIMES: His teammates didn't step up.
- PAST EXAMPLES: Golden State in 2007.
- WHY IT DOESN'T WORK ANYMORE: Have you seen what J.J. Barea has done in this year's playoffs?
The bottom line is that there's no right way to play Nowitzki anymore. Whether it's personal growth or the improvement of the conditions around him, you can't have one strategy to slow him down. Your only hope is to mix it up and hope he gets confused.
Problem is, Dirk doesn't really get confused anymore, and he has a counter for every strategy. So really, all an opposing team can do is try their best and hope he misses shots. More and more, it's becoming clear that even that strategy isn't going to work.