Tuesday night’s Western Conference Finals opener was the rolling hills of basketball emotions for me. I watched like the rest of NBA world did while Dirk Nowitzki piled on points, two at a time, possession after possession. It was exquisite and dirty at the same time. When the whistles started rolling in in the third quarter, I flashed back to the summer of 2006 when Dwyane Wade marched through Dallas defenders on the shoulders of refs blowing whistles like heavenly basketball trumpets. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to see someone so great perform like a genius, but feel the need to associate the performance with some kind of qualifier, but here I am.
There are three parties privy to this performance: Dirk (innocent of any wrong doing), the Thunder defenders (guilty of ignorance and the wrong kind of flexibility) and the refs (guilty of something like pathetic officiating). Dirk was on one tonight. It didn’t matter who defended him or how they did it, he was hitting gaggles of jump shots and forced Thunder defenders to foul him 16 times. The fouls were a mix of stupidity on OKC’s part (example: Durant switched to Dirk and picked up back-to-back fouls on the same stupid reach) and tender whistles by the refs. Dirk didn’t need to be bailed out by anyone. He was good enough tonight to earn his own segment on ESPN Classic or 30 for 30 or some German equivalent. But the opposition and the officials insisted on giving him a boost.
That’s Dirk’s shot chart from the game tonight and it’s brilliant. 12-15 on contested jumpers and a few drives? I think every OKC player who stepped on the court (except for Maynor and Nate Robinson) took their turn with Dirk and each one was equally ineffective. It was like a Manny Pacquiao fight where the opposition can’t implement their strategy because Dirk/Manny forces you to play/fight his style. What’s not listed in that shot chart is the 24 points Dirk scored on trips to the line. I can’t recall a player shooting this many jumpers and making a living at the line.
OKC tried speed, quickness, strength, wiry guys, athletes, black guys, a white guy, a Swiss guy and a Congolese; but Dirk refused to discriminate and ate them all up. What they refused to do was adapt to the whistles. Yeah, I thought the officiating was soft trash. For the most part, it was consistent though. OKC attacked more (40 points in the paint to 36 by Dallas) and was rewarded with more trips to the line (43 to 36), but they hurt themselves by refusing to adjust to the tick tack calls. The Durant example I used earlier was just one of many where OKC defenders tried different methods, usually physically aggressive, and were whistled for fouls, then did the same thing again. Towards the end of the game Ibaka made an adjustment (keeping a hand in Dirk’s face as opposed to using his body to get in close and inevitably be called for a foul) that was at least semi-effective in the sense that he wasn’t called for fouls and limited Dirk’s efficiency.
A lot of NBA fans still associate the 2006 finals with D. Wade’s mastery and the bump he received from the refs. Depending on what happens in this series and the finals, this will either go down as a singularly great one-game performance or a big shiny star symbolic of and solidifying to Dirk’s place in NBA history. For both players and performances, the one point lost in between the hyperbolic commentaries and cynical asterisks is the ability of both Dirk and Wade to recognize the bend in the rules and exploit the living hell out of it.