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OKC will need to dig up answers for Dirk

DALLAS -- Is the best way for the Oklahoma City Thunder to deal with Dirk Nowitzki during the Western Conference finals to just leave him open?

Don't laugh. It's based on intensely researched information.

As ESPN Stats and Information has dug up, Nowitzki's lowest shooting percentage against individual Thunder defenders this season -- still a worthy 44.4 percent on 4-of-9 shooting -- falls under the category "unguarded/others," meaning he was either, well, unguarded, or that someone other than Serge Ibaka or Thunder-turned-Celtic Jeff Green was on him.

Nowitzki had his way with those two, going 8-of-11 for 26 points combined. Having been traded to Boston for the physical presence of center Kendrick Perkins, it's no longer Green's problem. The athletic, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Ibaka, the top shot-blocker this postseason, might have a big problem. It's tough to swat fallaways, step-backs and one-legged step-backs taken 15 feet and out.

Behind Ibaka, gritty and determined veteran Nick Collison, a solid 6-10, will have to take a few shifts. Nazr Mohammed, the 6-10, 13-year vet, can give it a go if Thunder coach Scott Brooks so chooses. If desperate, the long arms of lanky 6-9 star Kevin Durant could be called to action, but that scenario seems entirely unlikely. Green was never a sure-fire answer, but he was another option.

Nowitzki played just five quarters and change against OKC this season. The lengthiest injury absence of his career, but short in retrospect spanning Dec. 27 to Jan. 15, occurred at hostile Oklahoma City. Early in the second quarter, Nowitzki twisted his right leg landing a fallaway. Ibaka fouled Nowitzki on the 8-foot shot, it went down for his third bucket of the opening 2:50 of the quarter, and Nowitzki managed to get to the free throw line and convert the 3-point play before his night ended in the training room.

In 11 minutes of action he had scored 13 points. A month earlier, Nowitzki went for 34 against the Thunder. The injury kept him out of the finale just two weeks later. His season totals are impressive: 47 points in 51 minutes, 13-of-21 shooting and 3-of-6 on the kind of 3s he likes to step into when the pace of the game is up.

How will the Thunder attack Dirk? One-on-one, hope for the best, and sell out on the Mavs' jump shooters? Double-team him? Triple-team? Box-in-one?

"I don't know," Nowitzki said of OKC's potential tactics, although having been asked the question prior to Sunday's Thunder clinching, he was reluctant to discuss matchups without a winner.

"He’s going to play his game, and after 13 years he’s seen just about every coverage that there is," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "People will continue to be creative to try to come up with things to neutralize him. But, the reality is we need him to play his game and if teams commit two or three guys to him, other guys have to be ready to step up and make shots and make plays."

Players are echoing the latter statement: "other guys have to be ready to step up and make shots and make plays." They lived it in the sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jason Terry is hot, a major directional shift from the past two postseasons. The threat alone of Peja Stojakovic is providing even greater spacing for Nowitzki to operate.

Still, it all starts with the attention defenses pay to Nowitzki, Stojakovic said. In years past swarming him proved a good option when jump-shooting failed. It was Nowitzki or nothing, and that's bad odds even for a future Hall-of-Famer playing at the peak of his game.

"The answer really is what the other guys do around him," Terry said. "When we’re playing well around him it frees him up. Obviously, they can’t draw a lot of attention to him because everybody else is doing their thing positively so he doesn’t have to take over as much."

It doesn't help the Thunder that Nowitzki discovered his touch between the Portland and L.A. series. He blistered the Lakers and enters tonight's Western Conference finals averaging 26.5 points on 49.7 percent shooting and 60 percent from 3-point range.

While Nowitzki is mixing in a fair amount of strong driving, he's still taking care of business from his sweet spots and dominating from 15 feet and out. According to ESPN Stats and information, Nowitzki shot 64.7 percent from 15-plus feet (22-of-34) against L.A., best of any player in the conference semifinals.

Terry, Nowitzki's lone remaining teammate from the 2006 Finals team, is not surprised.

"His growth and development has come because he’s accepted double teams, he's read defenses, he’s made plays," Terry said. "And then when [teams] do cover him one-on-one, a matchup he likes, he’s not hesitant, he’s aggressive and goes at it. I think that’s what makes him most dangerous."

The Blazers had few answers for him. The Lakers had none. The Thunder are on the clock.