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Mavs' Dirk adds more savvy to his game

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Charley Rosen

Charley Rosen is FOXSports.com's NBA analyst and author of 17 sports books, the current ones being Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds.

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GAME TIME: Mavericks 100, Thunder 86

Make no mistake, while Jason Kidd is assuredly one of the most magnificent facilitators the NBA has ever known, this game and this Dallas team belongs to Dirk Nowitzki. However, in his 12th NBA season, Nowitzki conducts his on-court business in a vastly different fashion than he used to do.

Whereas he once ran through a ball game like his pants were on fire, jumped to touch the moon, looked to dunk on every drive and dribbled freely from end-to-end, his game has slowed considerably.

Against the Thunder, only two of his 18 shots were put up in the shadow of the basket — a two-dribble lefty drive from the foul line and a baseline-spin from the right box. His other 11 makes were assorted jumpers — two treys, plus a wide variety of step-backs, turn-arounds, face-ups and catch-and-shoots. Instead of speed, quickness and untamed talent, Nowitzki now relies on all kinds of head-, ball- and/or shoulder-fakes to create optimal angles for his various jumpers.

No more rash dashes and wild assaults on the rim. No more forced shots and passing fancies. Instead of showcasing his game from baseline to baseline, with the ball in hand, Nowitzki’s sphere of influence now has a three-foot radius.

Once he was a play-buster, but as a wizened veteran, he executes Rick Carlisle’s offensive to perfection. He’ll set two screens, then use another screen to pop to the top for a catch-and-shoot. He’ll also screen and fade, muscle for position in the low post, come to the ball off a down-screen in the lane and/or take full advantage of every forced switch with a wing-iso.

And when the Mavs absolutely need a score, Nowitzki will work his way through several maneuvers and wind up with the ball in a foul-line iso. From there, any attempt to double-team him is extremely dangerous since he can make easy passes to open teammates on either wing. But except for two or three sequences against the Thunder’s rather lax defense, Nowitzki prefaced each shot with some manner of convincing fake that not even the most disciplined defender can resist.

Speed and youthful exuberance have been supplanted by cunning and deceit. Through it all, though, his jump shooting remains unerring.

It’s on the defensive end, however, in which Nowitzki’s diminished quickness is most noticeable. On five separate occasions, he was slow to make contact with his man as the Thunder launched shots. This failure to box out enabled Oklahoma City to score eight extra points. In addition, Nowitzki was slow off his feet — of his 11 total rebounds, six were totally uncontested, and only two were captured in the middle of a hostile crowd.

Notice, too, that his per-game rebound average has been lower in each of the last five seasons.
Worse still, on a jump-ball versus Nenad Krstic, Nowitzki remained floor-bound even as the Thunder’s center tipped the ball to a white-jerseyed teammate.

At the same time, the experience he’s gained after playing in 962 NBA games (counting both the regular season and the playoffs) enable Nowitzki to anticipate instead of reacting on defense — hence, his two steals and one blocked shot against OKC. Aside from Nowitzki, Dallas doesn’t have any abundance of players who can consistently create their own shots. Of the starters, J. J. Berea is too short to be a reliable self-creator. J-Kidd’s lost step has mostly reduced his offense to three-balls. Shawn Marion’s individual moves are predictable. Erick Dampier has no discernable moves.
Off the bench, Jason Terry is strictly a spot- and pull-up shooter. Drew Gooden is ordinary. And Josh Howard is wild and profoundly unreliable.

Except for Nowitzki’s iso — 14 of these in the game at hand, good for 19 of his 35 total points — the Mavs’ half-court offense mostly relies on high screens, staggered screens, weak-side screens and handoffs to induce either mismatches or missed defensive assignments. And this is where J-Kidd excels. Indeed, the offensive sets tend to stagnate when he’s taking a blow.

What else is new?

Finally, there’s a big D in Dallas. It was the Mavs’ coordinated, quick-footed doubling of Kevin Durant — and post-doubling recoveries — that ultimately won the game.

And what’s old?

The fading memory of Nowitzki’s bogus MVP award in 2007 — an award announced even as the top-seeded Mavs were upended by the bottom-seeded Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs. A dreadful series wherein Nowitzki averaged a mere 19.7 points per game, shot 21.1 percent from downtown and 38.3 percent overall.

However, unless the Mavs advance — at the very least — to the conference finals, that memory will no doubt live again.

So, for the new Nowitzki and his rapidly aging Mav-mates, this season could easily be their last chance for glory.

STRAIGHT SHOOTING

These guys are paid millions of dollars to play basketball and they are, presumably, among the very best athletes in the world. Yet their respective performances at the foul line are disgraceful.

Josh Boone – 30.0%
DeAndre Jordan – 34.6%
Kwame Brown – 41.5%
Hasheem Thabeet – 42.1%
Shaquille O’Neal – 45.1%
Chuck Hayes – 45.5%
Kyrylo Fesenko – 47.4%
Omri Casspi – 48.1%
Rajon Rondo – 52.1%
Lamar Odom – 53.5%
Ben Wallace – 53.7%
Dwight Howard – 58.4%

But there’s hope for all of them in a tried and true technique that takes only about 10 minutes to master — shooting free throws with a two-handed underhand motion.

Is it too old-fashioned for today’s flashy, hyped-up game?

Not any more old-fashioned than screen-and-rolls, give-and-goes, back-door cuts, lob passes, boxing out and so on.

Would the players be too embarrassed to shoot this way?

Not any more embarrassed than missing a pair of free throws and therefore, transforming a seemingly advantageous foul on the defense into what is essentially a turnover.

Not any more embarrassed than not being permitted to touch the ball, or even be forced to the bench, in clutch situations.

Rick Barry wasn’t at all embarrassed to shoot this way. All he did was to lead the NBA in scoring (35.6 ppg in 1967), lead Golden State to a championship (1975), make the All-NBA First Team several times (1966-7, 1974-76), get voted into the Hall of Fame (1987) and get named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996). By the way, his lifetime mark at the stripe was 90.0 percent.

The point being that if shooting underhand free throws was good enough for Barry, it should be good enough for Shaq, Howard, et al.

In truth, shooting underhanded is comfortable, easily learned and incredibly effective. The drop-and-flip shot release insures a “soft” ball that turns virtually every near-miss into a make.

Within one week, each and every convert to this technique would see his free-throw accuracy increase by at least 20 percent.

Guaranteed!

VOX POPULI

Can you honestly say that J.J. Redick has a higher basketball IQ than Kobe? Ronel Baldizon, Lake Forest, CA

Absolutely. And here’s why:

Kobe habitually makes bad decisions on defense — mostly abandoning any personal responsibility for the player he’s supposed to be guarding in order to follow the bouncing ball. This frequently creates serious imbalances in the Lakers’ team defense, resulting in open shots and in fouls on teammates who must scramble to compensate for Kobe’s misadventures.

The easy points scored by opponents greatly outnumber Kobe’s occasional steals and blocks.

On offense, Kobe is guilty of taking too many too-quick perimeter shots, and conversely of disrupting the flow by massaging the ball at inopportune times.

For sure, Kobe is the best player in the league, but he’d be even better if he made a more sincere commitment to the Lakers' game plan.

Redick, on the other hand, is certainly not one of the league’s best players. In fact, his relatively inferior athleticism would ordinarily disqualify him from even being in the league.

Even so, Redick has become a valuable player on the basis of two qualifications: His unerring jumper and his understanding of the game.

Indeed, Redick’s apprenticeship lasted for three seasons, during which he slowly but surely learned his lessons.

Watch both of these guys play. Notice how often Kobe’s incredible skills overcome his mistakes.

Notice how Redick never tries to do something that he can’t do well. And notice how rarely he makes errors of position and timing.

This is certainly not to say that Redick is anywhere close to Kobe in any other possible category. But sometimes intelligence is just as vital as sheer will power.

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY

While I can certainly understand Rick Adelman being upset at the NBA’s “ridiculous” scheduling that has his team playing four back-to-back dates in the next few weeks, I don’t feel any sympathy for him.

That’s because the CBA often booked teams for three games in three nights in three different cities. And most of those trips involved two or three connecting flights.

In addition, coaches and players had to catch cheapo 6 a.m. flights, undergo a long and tedious public check-in process, squeeze into coach seats and eat fast-food airport meals on the run.

After reaching our destination, the home team would hopefully have a van waiting that the coach (or rarely a resident team flunky) would drive to the motel. About 25 percent of the time, however, the promised vehicle would be missing and the visiting coach would have to spend at least 30 minutes on the phone trying to discover what was what. Then, upon arriving at our motel, we’d usually lack the available site, the time and/or the energy to have any kind of pre-game practice.

Since most CBA franchises were appropriately located in minor-league towns, for our post-game meals we’d normally have to settle for having pizzas delivered to our rooms.

And it was literally impossible to win 3-of-3 in these back-to-back-to-back situations.

Compare these ordeals to the pampered way in which NBA teams travel.

When on the road, they pack their luggage and leave it outside their doors. The next time they see their various suitcases and garment bags will be when they enter their hotel rooms in their next destination. No schlepping, and no airport check-ins necessary.

Of course, all NBA teams charter jets that come and go at the team’s convenience and also come equipped with extra-large swivel seats, fancy buffet meals and video screens to re-watch the game just played.

So, while Adelman’s complaints are justified and do put his team at a certain disadvantage, I know plenty of ex-CBA players, coaches and even many more civilians who wouldn’t mind getting NBA money for traveling like royalty and working for two hours two nights in succession.

Adelman is advised to get as much rest as he can, eat well and play his bench.

After all, oftentimes the difference between the sublime and the ridiculous is in the eyes of the beholder.

More Stories From Charley Rosen

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