Dirk Nowitzki's shooting struggles deepen

DALLAS -- For much of the fourth quarter, this Interstate 35 showdown seemed like a flashback to the last season's Western Conference finals.

The young Oklahoma City Thunder let another double-digit lead disintegrate against a renovated version of the veteran Dallas Mavericks squad that dismissed Kevin Durant & Co. in five games en route to the franchise's long-awaited first championship parade.

But there were a couple of key clutch ingredients missing, preventing the Mavs from closing out what would have been an excruciatingly painful reminder of the West favorite's conference finals failure.

Grizzled, gray-haired point guard Jason Kidd sat on the Dallas bench in a suit, resting a strained calf that will sideline him at least the rest of the week. Dominant power forward Dirk Nowitzki has disappeared.

Nowitzki technically played in the Mavs' 96-85 loss at the American Airlines Center, a game the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder finished with a 10-1 run after the Mavs rallied from 10 points down to tie the score with 2:14 remaining. But Dirk doesn't even resemble the dude who has appeared in the last 10 All-Star games and earned the Finals MVP just months ago.

The 7-footer has been bad all season by his Hall of Fame standards. He was worse Wednesday night, scoring only eight points on 2-of-15 shooting.

"I'm just not in a good rhythm," said Nowitzki, whose scoring average (16.2 points) and field-goal percentage (.430) are the lowest since his lockout-shortened rookie season of 1998-99. "I had some good looks there, I thought, in the second half especially. A couple of them were just in and out.

"I've just got to keep working, come in at night, like what I always do, lift on off days and get my shots up and just keep on working. Keep working in the right direction."

It's not an exaggeration to call this the worst shooting performance of Nowitzki's legendary career. It was only the fourth time in franchise history -- and a first for him -- that a Maverick has attempted at least 15 field goals and made two or fewer.

Yet, for those who have watched Nowitzki struggle night after night this season when he wasn't sitting out to try to get his game and sore right knee right, it can't be considered too shocking.

This is the sixth time this season Nowitzki has scored 12 or fewer points. To put that in perspective, Dirk had a dozen points during Dallas' OT-forcing 17-2 run in the final five minutes of Game 4 in last season's West finals, a Mavs win that basically crushed the Thunder's spirit in the series.

Coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban continue to express ultimate confidence in Nowitzki, pointing out that he struggled to regain his rhythm immediately after returning from a nine-game absence due to a sprained knee last season. However, Nowitzki hasn't struggled like this for such an extended stretch since he was a homesick rookie wondering whether he was cut out for the NBA or better off heading back to Germany.

Nevertheless, nobody in the Mavs franchise seems too concerned. The good news is that Nowitzki's right knee isn't swelling and feels better than before his personal training camp last week.

"The rest is just hard work," said Nowitzki, who is showing up at the Mavs' practice court for nightly workouts with longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner.

"Every series of slumps, one of them's gotta be the worst," Cuban said. "One of them's gotta be bad, so that's what this is. I'm not worried about it at all. He's frustrated. His shot's not going. It's probably in his head some, but Holger just got to town. They'll work together. I'm not worried about it even a little bit."

Nowitzki, who averaged 32.2 points in the West finals and had his two best scoring games of this season against the Thunder, acknowledged he's trying to rebuild his confidence in his knee and game as he goes. It's especially alarming to see him unable to beat Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins off the dribble, no matter how much weight the slimmed-down big man dropped during the lockout.

The Mavs (14-9) have managed to stay in the thick of the West playoff picture despite Dirk's woes. Dallas is an even deeper team than last season, as evidenced by the Mavs' 3-1 record during his layoff compared to his 2-7 record when he sat last season. They'll keep running their offense through the big German and count on him to get right when it really counts.

"When he gets it rolling, hey, we're going to be tough to beat," closing sidekick Jason Terry said.

At this point, the Mavs just have to hope that happens by the time the playoffs begin or the West will be won by someone else.