DALLAS -- Is it possible that Dirk Nowitzki's leadership has never been more evident, and that somehow the Dallas Mavericks can emerge a better team when their leading scorer returns from a sprained right knee that has sidelined him for five games now?
The short answer is yes, and quite possibly.
Not only has Nowitzki displayed a fine collection of men's wear while sitting out, but he's been an active, cheering participant on the bench. He talks to teammates during timeouts and roots them on during the game. He hates missing games as his iron-man record suggests, but he actually looks to be enjoying himself as he gets caught in the ups and downs of these games.
In Tuesday's gritty, 84-81 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Jason Terry broke another perplexing cold spell with one of his fourth-quarter barrages. When he knocked down his first of five field goals in the period at the 6:52 mark to put Dallas ahead 70-69, Nowitzki rose to his feet and flashed four fingers, the sign Terry's taken to of late to signal his prowess in the final period, unlike the first three quarters in a puzzling ongoing trend.
Nowitzki did it again and again and again.
"It really says something about him, the growth of Dirk and where he’s come from as far as his leadership," said Terry, who finished with 18 points, tied with DeShawn Stevenson for the team lead. "Years ago people always questioned him. I know Avery [Johnson] questioned him a lot on being a leader, but now more than ever, you see it, you hear it, he’s vocal. Before he did it with his play; now he’s starting to be vocal. And now that he’s out, he’s been the most supportive guy over there. Not only of me, but everyone, and guys love that."
They also love earning a hard-fought win with the big fella on the bench. When Nowitzki went down with a right knee sprain on Dec. 27 in Oklahoma City, no one knew quite how long he'd be out, or how badly the Mavs would slip without their 7-footer who basically sets up everyone else's offensive opportunities in the halfcourt sets.
So far this season, no team has depended more on one player than the Mavs (26-8) have Nowitzki. The numbers are staggering. Prior to his injury, when Nowitzki's in the game, the Mavs had outscored their opponent by 13.3 points per 48 minutes. When he was out, the Mavs got outscored by 13.7 points per 48 minutes. That's the largest swing for any player with enough minutes to matter in the leauge.
After the ugly 84-76 home loss to a depleted Toronto team in the game following Nowitzki's injury, it looked as though the Mavs might never find a way to win a game without their perennial All-Star.
"When he first went down, that first game was [at home], we lost and everybody was looking around like, 'What are we going to do without Dirk?'" Stevenson said. "I think that big win in Cleveland [on Sunday] let us know that we can play. Us winning like this is letting us know that we can hold it up until he gets back, but obviously with Dirk there it’s a different ballgame."
While the Mavs have not run like a well-oiled machine in the five games without Nowitzki, they are now 2-3 in those games, and if the Oklahoma City game is thrown in, where Nowitzki left early in the second quarter and Dallas pulled out the victory with a knockout fourth quarter, they're .500. Not bad considering the Mavs also lost Caron Butler for likely the season early in Saturday's loss at Milwaukee and they're now learning to play without the 6-foot-7 small forward who had emerged as the second scoring threat behind Nowitzki.
Tuesday's win was their second in a row and it snapped a two-game home skid, the two games immediately following Nowitzki's injury. The second was a scrappy effort in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The Mavs even picked up a game in the standings Tuesday with a rare Spurs loss at New York.
"It’s an opportunity for us because when he’s on the floor this year I think he’s the leading plus-minus guy in the entire league, which tells you something about how great he is," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "And when he’s been off the floor, those have been challenging times for us. Now we’re in that situation and we know we’re in it and we know we’re going to be in it – we’ll see where things are on Thursday – but this is where everybody else has to come together and find ways to make winning basketball plays. It’s going to start for us at the defensive end. That’s the beginning of everything."
Dallas held up defensively Tuesday, allowing no more than 21 points in any of the final three quarters. The 81 points the Blazers scored tied for the fewest by a Mavs opponent this season. Portland shot just 41.8 percent and was held to under 40 percent in the second and third quarters.
Combined with Terry's fourth-quarter breakout was another all-around solid game from Stevenson, who has moved from shooting guard to small forward in the two games since Butler's injury and has averaged 20.5 points on 11-of-25 shooting, including 9-of-21 from beyond the arc.
The Mavs didn't get a lot of scoring Tuesday, but they did receive good balance with Tyson Chandler going for 14 points (and 13 rebounds), J.J. Barea scoring 10 and three others with eight points each.
"What we’re learning is that we don’t solely have to rely on [Nowitzki] and that’s [important] because there’s going to be games where they take him away throughout stretches of the game," Terry said. "But, look at what DeShawn Stevenson is doing; it’s built his confidence up. Brian Cardinal. You never know in the playoffs when you’re going to rely on some of those guys to get it done. This is like learning on the job."
Of course, the Mavs will be ecstactic when this little learning session is over and Nowitzki is back on the court.