In the spring of 2007, Dirk Nowitzki felt about as low as he could go.
His Dallas Mavericks had lost in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat in 2006. He had missed a free throw at the end of the third game that could have tied the score; the Mavs were up 2-0 at the time, and could have put the Heat away. Instead, Miami won four straight, and Nowitzki took most of the blame.
A year later, Dallas won 67 games, the most in the league by far. In the first round of the playoffs, however, the Mavs fell to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, with Nowitzki shooting 38 percent and putting up more turnovers than field goals in the final game. He was blasted for settling for jumpers, shying away from the hard contact underneath in the lane. He was too soft, too weak, too unreliable in the clutch.
The whispers rang like shouts in his ears. He had to get away from the doubters and the nay-sayers, those calling for him to toughen up, whether on radio, the street, or in his own head.
Nowitzki took his talents and headed for Australia. As described at the time in Jesse Hyde’s remarkable piece in the Dallas Observer, he spent five weeks in and near that vast and often empty continent, driving, staying in youth hostels, camping, growing his hair and beard, drifting out to sea. His only companion was his mentor and personal coach, Holger Geschwinder, then 62 years old. It was a voyage of personal discovery, taken with the one man in the world who most believed in Nowitzki’s potential, and had since he was a boy.
It was Geschwinder who taught Nowitzki his high-arching shot from outside. He emphasized that “a basketball team was like a good jazz band,” Hyde wrote. “Some players were virtuosos, and others were specialists, but to make good music they all had to know their parts and play them well. Sooner or later, everyone would have to step up and play a solo, and the others would fade into the background.”
On Sunday night, Geschwinder sat in Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena and heard the Dallas Mavericks complete one of the most remarkable ensemble pieces ever played.
Nowitzki was named the series MVP, though for much of the sixth game he was consistently off key. In the first half, he missed 11 of 12 shots for a total of three points, yet the Mavs led by two. It was Jason Terry’s turn to take a solo, scoring 19 in the first two quarters; DeShawn Stevenson added three 3s, and the bench provided 33 of Dallas’s 53 first-half points.
The big man never stopped taking his shots, never stopped believing they would fall. He came alive in the second half, scoring eight in the third quarter and ten in the fourth. His fallaway jumper with 2:27 to play gave Dallas a 99-89 lead, all but sealing the victory.
The Miami Heat is not the first team to bring together three major stars and fall short of the ultimate victory. Back in the late 1960s, the Lakers put Wilt Chamberlain with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor – a big man joining two great inside and outside scorers – and lost in consecutive Finals to the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.
LeBron James has had a target on his back ever since he decided to leave Cleveland and join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. At crucial moments in the second half, the Heat whipped the ball around as player after player declined to take the vital shot. When James drove the lane, the Dallas defense put two and sometimes three defenders in his path; he never found a solution, never found the reliable role players who could take advantage of the collapsing defense. Their virtuoso soloists struggled to recognize their cues.
Dallas has spent several seasons putting together a strong set of ensemble players. Shawn Marion provided outstanding defense and timely scoring. Jason Kidd, still one of the game’s smartest point guards, reinvented himself as a three-point shooter — yet Sunday night he took zero shots in the first half, concentrating on setting up his teammates. J.J. Barea tested the Miami defense with his outside shooting and slicing drives to the basket. Tyson Chandler gave the Mavs inside toughness on both ends. Jason Terry provided a deadly shooting touch.
The Heat had no answer, having been assembled in haste once the Big Three was signed and delivered. Their defensive rotations consistently left Dallas’s shooters with good looks from outside; the Mavs shot 42 percent on three-pointers Sunday, 41.1% for the series, far better than their 36.5% average for the regular season.
The Mavs were a better, more experienced team, one whose players knew each other and played together with trust and understanding. Though the difference lay more in the construction of the squads than in any personal failings, LeBron James could well spend the summer facing the same kind of questions Dirk Nowitzki asked himself four summers ago. Does he have a mentor to help him through?
Maybe he brought his talents to the wrong beach.