Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Biggest Game Of His Life

He needs this game.

With a win tonight, the Dallas Mavericks will eliminate the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, and advance to the Western Conference finals - where they will probably play the Phoenix Suns.

Before we get into the meat of this post, it's worth talking about the aforementioned Phoenix club.

In what was effectively a must win game for them last night, they came through with a double-overtime win against the LA Clippers, giving them a 3-2 series edge, and a chance to close it out on the road. Had they lost, they would have been fighting for their playoff lives on the road; instead, they carry the momentum, and none of the pressure, into the Staples Center on Thursday night. The Clippers had the game in their fingertips at the end of the first overtime, and let it slip away.

The primary reason that the Suns won was not because of their reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash. They won because their secondary star, Shawn Marion, stepped up with 36 and 20. They won because Tim Thomas poured in 25 points before fouling out. They won because Raja Bell hit key three pointers at the end of regulation and the first overtime to bring them back. They won in the spite of the fact that Steve Nash was 0-5 from downtown, and in spite of the fact that he committed three key turnovers at the end of regulation and in overtime. Nobody will remember that. While he played a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, nobody is calling out Steve Nash today. Had Raja Bell not made the impossible trey at the end of the first overtime, people probably would have been.

Similarly, tonight's Mavericks/Spurs matchup will probably not be decided by Dirk Nowitzki. While he's played very well, and admirably, fighting through a sprained ankle, there are other equally (if not more important) factors contributing to the Mavs 3-1 series lead. Those factors are Jason Terry's offensive explosion, and the insertion of speedy point guard Devin Harris into the starting lineup; the Spurs have not been able to effectively counter the latter move. Nonetheless, if the Mavs let this series slip away, it will all come back to Dirk. A Mavericks collapse will validate every critic who has called him soft, called him a bad teammate, and questioned his ability to be the alpha dog on an NBA team. That is why he needs this win.

Right or wrong, star players are judged by the success of their teams. Kevin Garnett may be a very good player, and a fantasy basketball stud, but he is not a great player. For years, he could not get the T-Wolves over the hump. After a series of first round exits, he finally got them to the conference finals in 2004, where they bowed out against an ailing and divided Los Angeles Lakers squad. He followed that up with two consecutive disappointing seasons, where the Wolves did not even qualify for the playoffs. The two years in the lottery have made KG's one run look like an aberration; he's not even mentioned as a potential great. There's some merit to that idea, as the true greats (MJ, Magic, Larry, Kareem, Wilt, Russell) all have the rings to show for it. Some of them benefited from playing with great teammates, but they all also raised their game when it mattered. KG didn't, and Dirk will be met with similar criticism if he can't.

The corollary to this is Tim Duncan. His Spurs have won three titles, despite the fact that he has never taken over a series, or played significantly above his head. For the first two titles, he had David Robinson to fall back on; for the last one, he had Manu Ginobli's energy to spur on his team (no pun intended). Manu paced that club, and it's a crime that Duncan was named finals MVP after a horrible Game 6 performance. Nonetheless, he got a ring, so nobody calls Tim Duncan a choker, nor will they ever. Even if he nearly pissed away a third title with a subpar 2005 finals performance.

The competition for the title of greatest European basketball player is slim. Kiki Vandeweghe has good numbers, but never carried a club; Detlef Schremp and Vlade Divac were always supporting players; Drazen Petrovic tragically died young. The only contemporary of Nowitzki's who may merit consideration is Pau Gasol. To date, however, the competition isn't close; Gasol's numbers don't match up to Dirk's, and he's yet to earn even a sniff of playoff success. The title, therefore, is Dirk's for the taking.

While some of the criticsms heaped on Dirk Nowitzki are fair (his calling out his teammates after last year's playoff exit was inexcusable), most of it isn't. He has shouldered the burden of criticism for those who think that Europeans (or most other foreign players) aren't cut out for the North American grind and style of play; critics have gleefully pointed to his playoff struggles as yet another piece of evidence (along with the struggles of high draft picks like Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitshvilli) as evidence that Europeans have the tools, but don't have the mental makeup or basketball sense to succeed in the actual game. When the T-Wolves took early exit after early exit, there wasn't a chorus of critics pointing out that perhaps KG's skipping college left him without the proper mental makeup to succeed, but when Dirk failed to carry teams that couldn't play defense past the second round, he suddenly lacked the proper makeup and background to succeed.

That won't be the case if he can knock off the Spurs. Dirk can shed the label of 'soft', not just for him, but for all European players. Already, it shouldn't apply, especially with the way that he's gutted through this series. But if he can't close out the champs, it will come back. Someone will label him 'soft'; someone else will label him a 'choker'. He doesn't deserve it, but it will happen anyway.

That's why I'm rooting for the Mavericks tonight. Yes, there's apparently some sort of hockey game going on tonight that will probably shut down my city if the home team wins, but I will be keeping one eye on the NBA as well. The Mavs don't technically need to win tonight, but if they don't, they will face what is effectively a must win game at home in Game 6. If they don't win there, there's no way they come back on the road in Game 7. I hope the Mavs can do it. And I hope Dirk can do it, whether he scores 3 or 30 points. He's a good player who has the potential to be a great one someday. Let's hope he can help his team advance tonight, so we can start talking about Dirk the player, not Dirk the 'soft European'.

3 Comments:

At 11:08 PM, Blogger sacamano said...

Tough loss for Dallas tonight, but I'm ecstatic that Ben Wallace's mouth has backfired into his scrotum.

 
At 12:11 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

You mean Rasheed Wallace, dude.

 
At 12:21 PM, Blogger sacamano said...

Whatever. I hate them both.

Rasheed talks too much. Ben pulled a Scottie Pippen and refused to reenter a game after Flip subbed him out.

What the hell is the matter with NBA players? Why don't their teammates step up?

Can you imagine if an NHL player refused to take a shift because he was kept on the bench for a previous shift? He'd get his ass handed to him through his ear.

 

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