Dirk Nowitzki couldn't wait to finish off his exile in training-camp purgatory and get back to playing games. When he did just that Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs after a nine-day, four-game hiatus to strengthen his bothersome right knee behind the scenes, he couldn't even get the ball in his eager hands.
Nowitzki's first six minutes went by without a point and nary an offensive touch.
"J-Kidd’s out," Dirk said of Jason Kidd, who will miss at least this week's slate of four games with a strained right calf. "He’s obviously our point guard and our best passer out there and he knows how to distribute. But the way they [the Spurs] were kind of playing me, they weren’t leaving me much in pick-and-rolls, they went under on Roddy every time. If Roddy wanted to he could have shot 30 shots. He had wide open, those little elbow jump shots. They just weren’t leaving me much."
More on that in a moment, but first back to Nowitzki's knee. He said he felt much better and moved better than prior to his workout week, and he emerged from playing 38 minutes physically in better condition than his ailing jumper. Dirk finished 5-of-14 for 10 points and he didn't attempt a free throw. He missed key shots in the wild fourth quarter, going 1-of-5 as he tried unsuccessfully to take over the game. Still, Dirk said he had better leg lift in his shot and an example was his rebounding, a season-high 13 and five in the fourth quarter, which had been right around his season average.
"It’s coming back," Dirk said of his knee and leg strength. "Still had some swelling this week though, but the workload was a lot. I lifted a lot, I mostly had two-a-days on the court a lot, we tried to really push myself. Still had a little swelling, but I think it’s going to be OK. My legs are getting stronger, my base is getting stronger, so just got to keep on working."
Dirk and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle weren't concerned about the heavy minutes Sunday night and the quick turnaround tonight at Phoenix. Carlisle followed a plan to play Dirk in five- to six-minute stretches.
"The pace of the game wasn’t fast," Carlisle said. "I talked to [head athletic trainer] Casey [Smith] before the start of the game. He wasn’t concerned about minutes. [Dirk] was on track to play about 32 or 33 if it hadn’t gone to overtime, so I think we’re OK."
Now, back to Kidd and Roddy and ball distribution. Dirk wanted Kidd on the team back in 2008 because he makes the game so much easier for others, Dirk has always said, and no one appreciates Kidd's distribution skills more than Dirk. But, with Kidd out of the lineup this week and perhaps longer, and inexperienced point guard Rodrigue Beaubois taking the keys, Dirk might have to hone his patience as much as his jumper.
"This is a different challenge for [Beaubois] starting at point and sometimes teams are going to go under pick-and-rolls and they’re going to basically dare him to shoot and keep a body on Dirk," Carlisle said. "In those situations, he’s understanding more and more that he has to step into those shots and make those teams pay a price."
It wasn't so much that his teammates forgot about Dirk in those opening six minutes. The Spurs just made it difficult to get the ball to him.
So this week breaks down to Roddy breaking in at the point and Dirk simply trying to break out.