Birdwatching: Chris Andersen v. Dirk Nowitzki

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

It's unknown when the trope "matchup nightmare" first entered the basketball lexicon, but I imagine it happened at some point between Magic Johnson's rookie season and the emergence of Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki's versatility makes him a nearly impossible cover. Normally, the primary defensive function of a power forward is to push his guy off the block. Nowitzki, though, neutralizes a good post defender because he actually prefers to hang out at the elbow, where he's one of the best 18-foot jump shooters in the game. When the defender steps out, the taller Nowitzki can shoot his high-arching turnaround shot over most power forwards, or, if he's so inclined, he can put the ball on the deck and drive to the hole. Nowitzki might not be the quickest 4 to the basket, but his defenders have to crowd him because he's such a deadly shooter. If Nowitzki can get that first step, it's a foot race between him and the weak side help. Dirk will win most of those battles because he's a strong and deceptively quick finisher.

Early on Sunday afternoon, it looks as if Denver has absolutely no answer for Nowitzki. On Dallas' first 13 possessions, Nowitzki converts all six of his field goal attempts from the floor, and chips in an assist to Josh Howard. Dirk isn't merely beating Kenyon Martin. He's having his way against virtually every Denver defender -- Nene, Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets' guards off the switch, et al.

The best player on the floor is in a Mavericks uniform and Dallas leads by eight at the end of the first quarter.

As Hubie Brown explains, George Karl has clearly made the decision to play Nowitzki straight-up. With the exception of the occasional trap along the sideline, Denver defenders will have to fly solo against Nowitzki in the middle of the floor. Karl is adamant: If Dirk is going to beat his Nuggets, he won't do it as a playmaker.

At the 10:03 mark of the second quarter, Nowitzki checks back in for Dallas, and is immediately picked up by Chris "Birdman" Andersen. Nowitzki's first touch of this sequence comes at the 8:33 mark when he draws J.R. Smith -- and a J.R. Smith foul -- on the switch. After that, the game at the Dallas end of the floor changes:

  • [2nd Quarter, 8:23] Dampier sets a hard down screen on Andersen to give Nowitzki a little space at the foul line. J.J. Barea feeds Nowitzki there, but Andersen doggedly fights through the Dampier screen and closes that space in a hurry. That's the first thing about Andersen: Dampier takes most defenders out of this play with what's essentially a lineman's block -- but not Andersen. He's back in Dirk's face before Dirk can face up. Dirk chooses to back Andersen in -- first with the right shoulder, then he reverses course and pounds with his left. Andersen absorbs every blow, and you sense he loves every minute of the contact. Birdman's feet are bouncy and he's got his right hand on Dirk's back. Nowitzki hasn't made much progress. He pivots to his right and, trying to draw the foul on Andersen, flings the ball at the basket -- but Andersen doesn't budge. He never bites on the shot and, in turn, denies Nowitzki the contact. The ball draws nothing.

  • [2nd Quarter, 7:55] Isolation for Nowitzki against Andersen way out on the left side of the arc. Andersen assumes a defensive crouch and takes a mean swipe at the ball as Nowitzki faces up. Dirk snatches the ball back, then takes a hard dribble with his left and goes baseline. On the drive, Birdman has Dirk on a tightrope, well underneath the hoop. Andersen funnels Nowitzki to the weak side where Nene stuffs Dirk's reverse layup attempt. Nowitzki finishes the afternoon 2-7 against the Birdman-Nene combination, 10-15 against the Nuggets' other defenders.

  • [2nd Quarter, 6:50] Andersen crowds Nowitzki at the top of the arc, really harassing him. Nowitzki moves forward with his patented sequence, left shoulder, then right shoulder. Andersen stays with him, as Nowitzki leads them to a spot inside the left elbow. Dirk elevates and, with Andersen's hand in his face, launches a fall-away jumper that's no good.

When Kenyon Martin checks back into the game for Nene at the 4:11 mark, he assumes Dirk Duty, and Andersen slides over onto Dampier and general help duty. On the next Dallas possession, Dirk draws Smith on the switch up top, backs in the Nuggets' guard, and works himself an easy 5-footer.

Andersen earns another stint on Nowitzki for the better part of the fourth quarter, during which Birdman outscores Dirk, 4-2. Nowitzki's only bucket comes on an offensive rebound that rolls his way, which he puts back up for a 10-foot jumper against Anthony Carter. The only time Andersen gets beat is on a defensive switch when he draws Jason Terry, who unleashes a quick jumper over him from about 20 feet [4th Quarter, 10:04]. But Andersen exacts revenge on the very next possession:

  • [4th Quarter, 9:28] Terry draws the Birdman at the same spot out on the left wing. This time, Terry tries to take Andersen off the dribble. The Jet's layup is promptly swatted into next week by Andersen, and Denver ignites the break. How nice a luxury it must be for George Karl to know that he can switch his center onto a speedy little guard and feel comfortable that his big man can not only stay in front of the drive, but challenge the shot at the basket.

  • [4th Quarter, 9:10] Andersen effortlessly runs through a (moving) screen by Antoine Wright off the ball at the elbow, and meets Nowitzki out on the right wing in isolation. Dirk faces up, but then rushes his half-hearted rocker step and subsequent jumper. The shot is off.

  • [4th Quarter, 7:16] Andersen fouls Nowitzki as Dirk brings the ball upcourt. After the Mavs inbound it on the side, Nowitzki gets the ball at the top of the key opposite Andersen. For the first time in isolation against the Birdman, Nowitzki acts decisively. That's probably a good instinct, only Andersen anticipates Nowitzki's left-handed drive beautifully and establishes himself at the spot for the easy charge call. Hubie: "A great defensive play."

  • [4th Quarter, 6:51] The Mavs are in transition. Jason Kidd gets the ball to Nowitzki in the right lane. Dirk, at the time he receives the pass, is actually ahead of Andersen, but Birdman catches him from behind and gets a piece of Dirk's layup attempt. Billups applauds proudly from the bench. Last week, we characterized many of Dwyane Wade's defensive blocks as "horror flick" plays -- just when you think Wade is out of the play, he comes in for the kill. Andersen is a horror show, too -- only he's not a furtive killer that we never see on screen. He's Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, walking in broad daylight with a pneumatic air gun.

Nowitzki gets only one more meaningful touch against Andersen. Ironically, he beats Andersen off the dribble, only to lose the ball as he makes his approach for the basket -- the last of Dallas' 20 turnovers.

It's doubtful Dirk Nowitzki will be bottled up for the entire series (and to be fair, Dirk went 12-22 from the floor, a solid performance, even if he tailed off). Dallas will make some smart adjustments. For one, they should figure out a way to generate more mismatches for Nowitzki, something they were able to accomplish in the first qua
rter. Andersen is a scrappy recoverer as the big man in a ball screen, but Dallas has the capacity to get Nowitzki more space, regardless of who's defending the two-man game.

Meanwhile the Nuggets have to be pleased. The top assignment for any team facing Dallas is neutralizing Dirk Nowitzki. It took Denver a quarter to find the lock, but they did. Andersen's shot-blocking and help defense are well-known and highly regarded, but today he proved that he can match up in isolation with one of the most gifted offensive power forwards in the NBA.