Dancing With Noah

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Tag Archives: Dirk Nowitzki

Reflection Eternal








Where to begin on this summer night in June? The NBA’s gone on its annual break and we don’t know if or when it will return. I’ve spent a decent part of the last few days reading through a mix of spiteful venom and corny fourth quarter jokes directed at LeBron James. I spent some more time seeing pictures of Dallas’s post-game celebration in the South Beach Miami clubs. This is our league now: The joys are documented on cell phone cameras and DeShawn Stevenson t-shirts while the lows go underground and are speculated against and attacked.

As I texted my buddy Hamilton earlier, we have the summer (and maybe beyond) for endless speculation and reflection. So I’ll start reflecting now before my memories fade into the abyss of an online archive.

I never, ever thought this Dallas team would win the title. Way, way back in April when we found out the playoff matchups, I saw Dallas vs. Portland and immediately circled it as an upset win for the Blazers. I didn’t do it just because I thought the Mavs were pussy soft—which I did think. I did it because as late as April 6th, the Mavs had gotten caught up in a four-game losing streak; two of those losses coming to the far-from-physical Golden State Warriors and their future first round opponent, Portland. A four-game losing streak is no microcosm of an 82-game season, but that losing streak at that time of year when Dallas was battling for a number-two seed was just one last bit of 2011 confirmation that this team didn’t play defense and couldn’t win when it mattered. The stats told a different story about their defense, but I’ll get to that shortly.

On top of the bad timing and my poorly constructed idea of this Dallas team’s identity, was their opponent: Portland. Despite the bad karma from the Darius Miles situation, these guys came together when Brandon Roy went down. On the increasingly large shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge, the spiteful wiliness of Andre Miller, the stretchability of Marcus Camby and the late season sneak job addition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers looked and felt like a team cresting into April. The way the Blazers consistently challenge the Lakers, there was a genuine sense of relief amongst Laker fans when Dallas won the series.

But goddamn, I was wrong and so were any Lakers fans who embraced a Mavs matchup in the second round. Dallas introduced us all to a cold steel resolution, that mettle you can’t buy at the store or even pray for (it wasn’t your time, right, LeBron?). Beneath the flesh of that Portland series, Dallas revealed what turned out to be their leader’s calling card: All-out assault. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blitzkrieg in a 7-seconds or Less, Phoenix Suns style, but this team was unprejudiced Terminator-style attack. Portland, Los Angeles, OKC and Miami got it the same. After Portland though, it all came together—or maybe it was there all along and I missed it; overlooked, because I had already written it off because it looked like the same group Dallas trotted out every year—Dirk, Terry and Kidd. Dismissed it because if anything, the NBA is predictable and we don’t get late-career titles unless there’s a drastic shakeup. Look at the last thirty years of NBA champs and you won’t see anything that resembles Dirk or Dallas. Veteran teams that won titles did so with a major addition or by becoming new teams (Celtics becoming the Big 3, Lakers adding Gasol, Hakeem needing MJ to retire, the Admiral needing Duncan, the introduction of Magic and Bird, the unification of Shaq and Wade) or they went the wait-my-turn route (MJ, Isiah). (Side note—the only other non-traditional title team was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.) In the playoffs, the Mavs completed a pilgrimage they started way back in 2008 when they hired Rick Carlisle.

I’m not trying to say we should’ve expected this out of Dallas. In three of the last five years, this Mavs team lost in the first round (two times were to lower-seeded teams). When I was in Vegas a couple weeks ago, watching Miami plow through a shell-shocked Bulls team and seeing the Mavs fortifying themselves against a trial and error OKC squad, I kept insisting that you can’t change your identity over the course of a few series’. To some extent, we all are who we are and I was confident that Dallas would show that baby soft face soon enough. All previous evidence of this team and the league as a whole indicated they weren’t a championship team. I don’t think my primary point was wrong: the Mavs playoff team played exactly to their identity. I was wrong about that identity though—drastically wrong. Looking back at the stats over the course of the past season, it starts to make more sense that Dallas had been coming together. They finished 8th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed/hundred possessions) and 9th in opponent’s effective FG%. The improving defense (this was their best defensive rating since the 67-win team of 2006-07 and their best defense under Rick Carlisle) no doubt helped them rip off the following streaks during the regular season: 12 games, 10 games and 8 games. More than half of their wins were part of a streak. This team had stretches of 18-1 and 16-2—with no overlap. Aside from those two streaks where the Mavs combined to go 34-3, their record was 23-22.

They caught another streak in April and went 16-5 in the playoffs. Counting the four-game win streak to end the regular season, they finished 20-5. I was wrongfully defiant all the way to the end, expecting Miami’s cream to rise to the top, but in all ways Dallas was the dictator and forced the game on their terms whether it was in Miami or Dallas.

I mentioned above that Dallas looked the same—Jet, Dirk and Kidd. While their counterparts were given names pre-ordained for the lights—Bron, Wade and Bosh—they weren’t given the pieces Mark Cuban gave the Mavs. It took the whole crew, from Brian Cardinal’s pasty American impression of the Euro-flop to Tyson Chandler’s infectious positive enthusiasm to JJ Barea’s inconceivable drives to DeShawn’s Dirk-bolstered swag. Beyond the “it takes a village” vibe of the Mavs, the main components understood the utilization process. Trust, camaraderie, accountability, morale—all that awkward junko speak that corporations try to force—were embodied by this Dallas team and the result was the attainment of eternity.

Winning an NBA Championship (unless you do it in a strike-shortened season, Pop) is the only way to reach forever in the NBA. It might be some bullshit, but every black and white stat, every subjective award, every label, performance and reputation is up for debate and attack. Someone’s always trying to take a dump on Wilt scoring 100 points or averaging 50 points/game for an entire season. Someone else is disputing MVP awards (incredulously asking how Steve Nash has the same amount of MVPs as Shaq and Kobe) and there are even intelligent people claiming MJ wasn’t the greatest. It’s all fair game and there’s even a loophole to attacking players with rings. Jason Kidd’s ring with Dallas doesn’t carry the same luster as a title with the Nets would’ve carried. But for Dirk, oh the lovable, likable, indisputable grass roots feel-good story of the 2011 playoffs; for Dirk’s place in the history of the league, it’s the ultimate in accomplishments. It’s free from any asterisk, any qualifier, and any but. It’s free from dispute, completely pure and that’s rare in a sport and league where its followers are almost trained to argue and challenge every little thing with zest of religious scholars and interpreters.

Nothing else this season exists in the absolute world that Dirk Nowitzki’s and Dallas’s playoff performance does. They’re all alone as the eternal truth of the 2010-11 season.


You’re Never Really Alone

Game four on Tuesday was a glorious mess. I was stuck in a texting mood for the duration of the game and saw the themes and storylines that have taken time to develop rise up to the surface with faces grinning or grimacing (we see you, LeBron). If we weren’t sure who we were watching or what they stood for, we have an idea of it now. Of course, with a guaranteed two more games and potentially three more games, everyone—from Brian Cardinal to the great Dwyane Wade—can continue to work on their own personal definitions of who they are.

(Not to get all off topic here, but the Tyson Chandler/Eddy Curry connection is ignored far too often. These high school twin towers were going to paint the Chicago streets with Jordanesque parades. Instead, their careers, personalities and reputations rolled up on poetic fork in the road and without a glance in each other’s direction, they scampered on towards their destinies, amnesic to the other’s existence. I can’t help but wonder if either guy ever has daydreams or nightmares about what could’ve been.)  

Back to the present; above all else, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade, the warriors returned to the same battleground five years later, have imprinted their individual brands on these finals. Dirk’s been doing it all playoffs and has a great hype man every couple nights in Mike Breen. Wade forced a bumpy ride through his old stomping grounds (haunted by the shadow of Mike?), but the rest of the crew was down for theirs. Now in the finals it’s Dwyane’s turn.  (If Wade and Dirk got together during the 2008 Olympics or the 2010 World Championships and agreed to meet in the finals in 2011 as a fifth-year anniversary of their first finals matchup, would the righteous scribes be as indignant as they were about the Wade/Bron/Bosh meetings? Wouldn’t it be a more interesting story if the big German and the native Chicagoan had some kind of hidden code of honor that was settled every five years on the court?)

Through the first four games of the finals, Dirk’s putting up over 26 points/game, pulling 10 rebounds/game and even blocking a shot a night. Against one of the best defenses in the league, this shit is not easy. Other than being white, he’s not like Bird. Other than having the flu in the NBA Finals, he’s not like MJ. He’s fucking unique in more ways than just being a dominant German in the NBA. His game is his own, but his relentlessness is his overlooked trademark. From the opening to the end of every game, he attacks, catching the ball at the top or in the mid-post, throwing shot fakes, hesitations and stutters, fading away into an arc of perfection, occasionally driving, but always attacking with one technique or another. But even heroes fail. In game three, it was Dirk’s turn to run out of classic-making magic. In the last minute of what ended up being a two-point loss, Dirk threw the ball away and then missed one of those jumpers that he does not miss.

His former executioner has been busy too: a hair under 30 points/game, 8 rebounds, over a block and 58% shooting from the field—for a two guard. If there was a symbol of vitality for the 2011 NBA Finals, it would be called Dwyane Wade and it would run faster, jump higher and try harder than other symbol you could find. Dwyane Wade wants to win more than anyone else. Some guys in jerseys in Dallas might disagree, but to the impartial observer, Wade’s lifted his effort to a new place and it’s lonely there because no one else in these finals is capable of joining him. For all the “In His Face!” moments Wade has produced in these finals, he failed and fumbled at the most inopportune times on Tuesday night. Where Dirk turned the ball over and missed a contested jumper, Wade missed a potential game-tying free throw and fumbled away a pass in the last thirty seconds of game four.

All along we thought Wade and Bron were brothers in arms, but night after night, it’s being revealed that Wade and Dirk are more closely related while Bron and Wade are maybe just friends (what up homie?). This isn’t part of the pile-on-LeBron sentiment that’s so prevalent on the internets. LeBron will have his opportunities (beginning on Thursday night), but as of game four two players have stolen the spotlight and are dueling for a right to history or honor or some shit. While the world continues to fume and flame and troll about the Decision and the audacity of superstars banding together, Dirk’s hitting up Wade on his burner and consoling him about the missed free throw and fumbled pass.

It's Deeper than Balboa & Creed

I Guess Change is Good for Any of Us

There are all kinds of change, but the most lasting and legitimate kind of change comes over time. It comes from things like experience, trial and error, practice, habit, development and often criticism. For all the excitement of this year’s playoffs, two changes stand out:

The first change has been gradual, subtle but frequently targeted for criticism. LeBron James is an easy target and always will be in the same way that MJ was ripped before he won titles and the way Kobe has been attacked before and after winning titles. Losing, the Decision, the Global Icon, the commercials, quitting accusations, rumors of uncoachability, ridiculous free agent demands and mountains of attacks and assaults in print and spoken word—it’s all been thrown at LeBron and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, it will continue to pour down on him. In the process of amassing hate from all corners of the basketball-watching and consuming public, LeBron went through the growing pains apparently required of NBA stars: incremental playoff progress followed by inevitable defeat by the league’s senior gatekeepers. In Cleveland, Bron lost to a veteran Pistons squad, Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a 4-0 Finals sweep, the KG-led Celtics (twice), and somehow to a hot-shooting Orlando Magic squad. After all those playoff losses and criticisms, he’s finally getting after it with the kind of intensity we’ve always associated with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, with the game on the line, he put the clamps on Derrick Rose. LeBron was the best player on both sides of the court and was rewarded for his efforts with a 3-1 series lead.

A few years ago LeBron commented, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” Homicide aside, we saw the comments and took note. Kobe busied himself with back-to-back titles and three straight finals appearances while LeBron continued to get bounced out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’d be beyond naiveté to ignore the southern migration and the Wade/Bosh upgrades. Bron is surrounded by the best #2 and 3 options in the league. With those two stars flanking him, he’s managed to improve his overall game. He’s been named to all-defensive teams in the past, but we haven’t seen anything like the lockdown job he put on Rose last night or the dive-for-the-ball intensity he showed in the late fourth. Maybe it’s the support of Wade and Bosh or maybe it’s the relief they provide, but this LeBron is different. He’s playing with an energy usually reserved for the lesser-talented players of the world and he somehow has an endless supply of it. His post-play and post-game celebrations are indicative of someone who’s giving a damn—whether his outburst are aimed at critics, opponents or history doesn’t matter much. Focus and commitment are questions of his northern past.

The other change born of these playoffs: the stoic evolution of Dirk Nowitzki—a few weeks shy of 33 years old. The Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, but Dirk’s likely been the MVP of these playoffs. He’s playing chess to the defenders’ checkers. He’s cancelling out the best defenders on every team and doing it with a style that’s foreign to the NBA game in more ways than just being a German import. He’s always been an efficient scorer and in his career the Mavs are 6-1 in playoff games where he scores over 40 points. Like LeBron, Dirk’s has his own basketball bouncing skeletons in the closet. It’s taken a long four years to cleanse himself of the stain laid on him by Stephen Jackson and the Warriors in the 2007 opening round playoff upset, but he’s returned to MVP form and then had the audacity to surpass it with something that appears to be a casual effort which isn’t to say he’s not trying, but that everything is somehow easier. Like James, any questions of Dirk’s toughness or heart have been silenced by his virtuosic performance in these playoffs.  

With LeBron and Dirk, there’s been nothing disingenuous about their change. There’s no re-definition or worshiping false idols. They still carry the parts and pieces we’ve questioned over the years, but they’ve layered on so much more that we have to squint to see the old traces and even then, our eyesight’s still not strong enough.

An LA River Runs through It


It feels odd seeing two NBA juggernauts collapse in the span of a week, but that’s what’s happening. Last week it was the Spurs who were not unable to adapt. They did everything possible (swapped out values, souped up the system, cozied up with the three point line) to keep title hope floating, but the legs can’t always do what the mind demands of them. Now it’s the Lakers turn to take the painful escalator down, but what’s waiting for them at the lower levels is foggy and I assume it’s hot like a cool hell would be.

Expectations absolutely matter, but at the same time, predictions and prognostications don’t. We didn’t expect the Lakers to be down three games to none after Friday, yet here we sit. We could see the Spurs slide coming and we had time to digest it, play with the thoughts, accept it and move along to a Lakers vs. Celtics III or Lakers vs. Heat or something along those lines. This Lakers devastation (for them and their fans at least, devastation seems wholly appropriate) has been sudden even though it’s been in the making for over 1,300 games. This is a team that has been remarkably consistent over this most recent four-year span. They’ve lived in the Finals for the past three years and in three of the past four years, they’ve landed on the same 57-25 mark for the regular season. Statistically speaking, they’ve been a better team in 2010-11 than they were in 09-10.

Then Andrew Bynum was born. After his annual stint on the Lakers sideline with the standard issue Bynum-knee-injury, Andy resumed basketball activities with anger. He’s played better for longer in the past. We’re all familiar with the promise of this deer-legged 23-year-old who the younger Buss preferred to build the team around back in that tornado-ish start to the 2007 season when Kobe-to-Chicago was story du jour. While Bynum over Bryant was laughable in 2007, the hints of greatness are revealing themselves every time Bynum scowls, calls out his teammates or dunks without jumping. Whether Bynum’s tapping into some of that compulsive dark matter that fuels Kobe or just doing what many 23-year-olds do: Becoming Himself, we don’t know. Whatever the case, Bynum is developing which should be a great thing for the Lakers.

Here they sit in a 0-3 shithole, surrounded by their own foul odors in Dallas, Texas of all places. Who shot JR? Who the fuck stole the Lakers’ basketball brains is the more confounding mystery. A better, meaner, nastier Bynum, an improved bench, another year in the triangle for Artest—the Lakers aren’t favorites just because they still hold the crown. Beyond the stats, the players and the stories tell us the Lakers should beat the Mavs. This series hasn’t even been close though. The Mavs have been the better team every game and have deserved each of their three wins.

From Madrid to LA, everyone expected Pau Gasol to be his usual, steady, all-star-ish self. Over the past four seasons, he’s probably been the Lakers most consistent player and shown us that he’s capable of true, honest growth. For Pau, it was never a question of technical expertise. Perhaps it was too easy to slap a Euro label on him and call him soft. When Pau was bullied physically and mentally in the 2008 finals it reinforced the stereotype, but Gasol reinvented himself as a bearded Spaniard who screams, awkwardly initiates confrontation and is willing to do so while still maintaining the grace of technical mastery of game that has made him an all-star. Prior to this playoff matchup, the Lakers were 8-2 against the Mavs since Gasol joined the team in 2008. It’s never been about Pau vs. Dirk (who’s battled his own Euro stereotypes over the years) or Spain vs. Germany or anything even remotely along those lines. But in 2011, these graceful seven footers can be defined by their contrasting performances in this second round series. Dirk is acting as a conduit for greatness for this Mavs team. He’s the center of everything they’re doing whether he’s scoring the ball or attracting double teams that lead to hockey assists and it’s led to renewed appreciation of his game. Meanwhile, Gasol has been a case study in fatigue—likely mental and physical. Something indescribable and indefinable has finally caught up with Pau Gasol. Maybe it was stalking him all these years or maybe he contracted it like a sad disease striking when the Lakers required any and everything in his vast arsenal. You can’t read or listen to anything about the Lakers in this series without hearing “What’s wrong with Pau Gasol?” At the moment, that’s the unanswerable riddle.

By comparison, Kobe’s performance is easy to grasp. We’ve become accustomed to him living on the edge with acrobatic jump shots, triple pivots and old man shot fakes. He’s walked that line and teetered between success and failure, and mostly landed on the positive side. Only now it’s harder. It’s nothing but jump shots for 48 minutes, but that makes perfect sense. The guy has logged over 1,300 games and  48,000 minutes of basketball, consistently at the most meaningful levels of the sport—Christmas day games, games on national TV, playoff games, finals. Like his post peer Tim Duncan, it’s been inevitable. Kobe didn’t take two years off to refresh himself like MJ. Instead, he won titles and played 201 games (not counting USA basketball) over the previous two seasons. He’s still breathing fire and instilling fear in fans and hyperbolic commentators, but he’s not carrying the Lakers like he has. That the team is folding into the playoffs as Kobe’s game becomes less dynamic confirms the obvious (but still taken for granted) value of his on-the-court performances to this Lakers team. For all Kobe’s dramatic shots and game winners, the losses have been equally magnificent beginning with the Pistons demolition in 2004, the blown 3-1 lead against the Suns in 2006, the Celtics record-setting comeback in 2008 and finally the Mavs shock and awe campaign in 2011. When Kobe’s Lakers lose, it’s typically so definitive that it precludes a drastic change.

This isn’t a time for tears or eulogies though. If the end is near, there are a couple of obvious choices you can make: The first is to adapt. Adjust your lifestyle or habits to survive for as long as you possibly can. The other is to get settled into a recliner with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack and stay committed to your values. For the Spurs, the decline was protracted enough that Pop could make survival-based adjustments. Phil hasn’t had that same luxury, but for all his Zen methods, you get the feeling he’s loyally married to his system. The old, rusty triangle worked long enough and well enough to leave Red Auerbach in the rear view of Phil’s gaudy accomplishments for all of eternity. And with Phil forcing the sun to set on his own watch, there won’t be any re-tooling or Pop-like adjustments. It’s sudden and confusing (mainly the Gasol piece of the puzzle), but Phil’s Lakers are finally on the precipice good-bye.

(Altnerate considerations: Kobe as player-coach, aside from Phil; what drastic changes will defeat bring?)

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