In a nostalgic interview with ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon, Dirk Nowitzki recently recalled the 2003 series between his Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs, a series in which Dallas stole Game 1 before eventually losing in six:
I remember we stole Game 1, which was amazing. We were 49-of-50 from the free throw line. That was an amazing, amazing game for us. Game 2, we lost and then here in Game 3 is a big game. Obviously, you want to hold home court, and that's the game I got hurt.
The Mavericks had a chance to steal another Game 1 from the Spurs on Sunday. The circumstances were different to be sure. But there's at least one thing in common between the 2003 Mavericks and the 2014 iteration.
They aren't going anywhere without Nowitzki.
He wasn't hurt this time around, but he might as well have been. Nowitzki was 4-of-14 from the field, scoring just 11 points in Game 1. In a contest ultimately decided by just five points, it goes without saying a productive Nowitzki would have made the difference.
If he makes half his shots, Dallas probably wins this one.
Instead, he missed from everywhere, looking little like the extraordinary shooter we've come to know and expect.
For those who haven't been especially tuned in this season, this is by no means a sign of the 35-year-old's decline. He's been vital as ever to Dallas' success, frequently producing like a star 10 years his junior. Bleacher Report's Ian Levy breaks down his statistical contributions:
According to Basketball-Reference, Nowitzki has posted an individual ORTG of 120 this season, a mark he's hit in just three other seasons and not since 2007. That absurd level of efficiency has been achieved while he's still been leading the Mavericks in Usage Rate, at 26.9 percent. The team's offense is four points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and according to mySynergySports (subscription required) he ranks in the top 30 in points per possession on post-ups, pick-and-rolls as a screener, transition possessions and shots coming off screens.
In short, Nowitzki still matters.
The Mavs still need big minutes and production, and by all accounts, Nowitzki remains capable of both.
He played 42 minutes on Sunday, and before the playoffs started, head coach Rick Carlisle predicted an increase in action, per The Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko: "It's probable his minutes will be extended from 32-and-change regular season up to the mid- and upper 30s at times in the playoffs, sure. You're not playing back-to-backs and you've got national TV games with longer timeouts. So there are things that can mitigate that."
The big question going forward is whether Nowitzki can do enough to overtake a Spurs team that won 60 games this season, a team whose system is well-executed and often dominant.
If Nowitzki were the only thing off on Sunday, we might be led to believe he was the missing ingredient. If he just plays like himself, the Mavs will be back in this series in no time at all—or so the theory goes.
But Nowitzki wasn't the only thing that was off. Something wasn't clicking for the Spurs, either—namely a supporting cast that's come to rank as one of the best in the business. San Antonio's esteemed second unit was outplayed handily by Dallas'. It gave up a nine-point first-quarter lead at the beginning of the second quarter, forcing head coach Gregg Popovich to quickly bring his starters back in.
Danny Green and Marco Belinelli usually score a combined 20.5 points per game. On Sunday, they contributed zero points, shooting a combined 0-of-6 from the floor.
San Antonio's usually high-octane attack was stifled by defense with a mandate—don't let the three-point shooters beat you. And the Mavs didn't. They switched on screens and remained glued to shooters throughout the game.
The Spurs were forced to attack the paint relentlessly, with Tony Parker in the first half, with Tim Duncan in the second.
Manu Ginobili was the only Spur whose outside shot looked in rhythm. From three-point range, the team was just 3-of-17—all three makes coming from Ginobili.
For every Mavs fan insisting things will be different next time, there's a Spurs fan who believes the same—only in a different sense. Nowitzki will bounce back, but so will San Antonio's system. That's what it's done all season. It's the difference between these Spurs and last year's version. This team is deeper, its role players more confident, skilled and in sync.
There's also San Antonio's defense with which to contend.
It was stifling in the first and fourth quarters, with Dallas scoring just one field goal in the final seven minutes of regulation. Spurs center Tiago Splitter contested Nowitzki's shot all night, using his length to at least bother an otherwise unguardable jumper.
The Spurs also picked spots to double Nowitzki, with Kawhi Leonard forcing a key turnover in the fourth quarter with his help defense.
Even if Nowitzki shoots the ball a little better, there's no switch he can flip that will turn San Antonio's defense off. The Spurs have seen a lot of Nowitzki over the years and are as well-positioned as any to game-plan against his crafty repertoire of moves.
Rule No. 1 is don't foul him. On that count, the Spurs were also successful, sending Nowitzki to the line just twice for four free-throw attempts.
Rule No. 2 is swarm him when he catches the ball on the perimeter. That worked as well, several times forcing the ball out of Nowitzki's hands.
Rule No. 3 is don't leave your feet. Splitter was exceptional to this end, relying on his length alone to bother Nowitzki, avoiding any tendency to bite on the pump-fakes that seem to give the rest of the world so many headaches.
All of that is easier said than done against Nowitzki, but the point remains: he's not entirely unstoppable.
A few other considerations should temper the Mavericks' optimism of a Nowitzki-led comeback in this series.
First, Devin Harris probably isn't going off again. The 31-year-old had 19 points off the bench, including three treys that seemed to slowly kill San Antonio's hopes of creating any distance in this one. On the season, Harris averaged just 7.9 points.
Second, watch out for Patty Mills. The Spurs' backup point guard is usually the one doing what Harris did, cashing in from the perimeter and giving the second unit a needed injection of energy and scoring ability. Mills had just two points in Game 1.
Finally, the Duncan we saw may be here to stay. If the Mavs elect to stay locked on to San Antonio's perimeter shooters, the 37-year-old is going to have all kinds of opportunities in the paint. He exploited those methodically in Game 1 to the tune of 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting.
It's easy to sleep on Duncan, especially after looking at regular-season production that's typically underwhelming and curbed by limited minutes. Duncan played 38 minutes on Sunday, missing a few extra on account of a knee that got banged up setting a screen against Monta Ellis.
Duncan's impact is emblematic of a larger advantage the Spurs have. They can still play inside-outside basketball. Lost in Nowitzki's subpar game is the fact that Ellis was also 4-of-14. As a team, Dallas was just 41.2 percent from the floor, and that's symptomatic of the biggest problem.
At their core, the Mavericks are a jump-shooting team. That might not seem so bad when you have one of the best jump-shooters ever to play the game, but it's a problem in the postseason. As the games slow down, many of the open looks dry up.
The Mavs don't just need more from Nowitzki. They need something different, a more aggressive face-up scorer who can get to the basket or pull up with a dangerous in-between game. They need Nowitzki to move more, to draw some contact, to create plays for others.
They need more than jump shots. Much as Dallas has lived by them, it's at risk of losing a series because of them.
A series that's a long way from over just yet.