Mavs hold steady as Dirk seeks game

DALLAS -- The most consistent portion of Dirk Nowitzki's performance this season has been the postgame interview that he still does by his locker without qualm after every game.

Wednesday night, 2-of-15 shooting be damned, was no exception.

There was Nowitzki, draped in white towels, his face stoic, lips straight, his blue eyes focused on the vacant space high above the reporters crammed around him, and appearing as cold as his once-flawless array of fallback jumpers and one-legged lungers.

He is seemingly at a loss right now to explain his 43 percent shooting -- 17.8 percent from downtown -- through 23 games, one-third through this 66-game schedule and beyond the quarter point of a normal regular season.

"I don't know what to tell you," Nowitzki said after scoring eight points in the 95-86 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I'm going to keep working. I'm not going to put the head down. I've just got to keep working."

That the Mavs enter Friday's tough matchup against the Indiana Pacers with a 14-9 record with the greatest player in franchise history putting up numbers he hasn't known since he wore a bowl haircut is rather remarkable.

In this three-game return, Nowitzki is 11-of-39 from the field and 0-of-11 from beyond the arc. He's shot six free throws. He missed all five 3-balls he put up Wednesday and hasn't hit one since Jan. 18. He's just 8-of-45 all season, and three came in one game.

Nowitzki's scoring in his past eight games reads like a role player off the bench: 8, 10, 10, 12, 17, 21, 14 and 11.

"This is a team game," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "This is not a one-man game, so we've got to keep playing our team game. Dirk's going to be fine. We have every belief that's going to be the case."

But when?

Nowitzki says the knee swelling that hampered his progress is gone. He said he is moving better but still isn't putting the ball on the floor with 100 percent confidence he can dribble by his man, and that it "still bothers me a little bit" when he tries to make a "hard move."

"I think it's going to come eventually," Nowitzki said. "I can't tell you how long it's going to take, but eventually it's going to come back. Last year was ugly, too, for a couple of games, but not that long."

Nowitzki missed nine games last season, during which the Mavericks went 2-7. This time they went 3-1, a testament to the team game the Mavs were so widely hailed for during last season's championship run and have carried over to this remodeled but similarly veteran-laden team.

Yet even as contributions came from far and wide on the title team, it was still Nowitzki's 32.2-point average against the Thunder in the Western Conference finals and 27.7-point average against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals that pushed Dallas to its first championship.

Public concern shown by the Mavs for Nowitzki's well-being is minimal, from owner Mark Cuban to Carlisle and down the line to Jason Terry, who has played with him longer than any other current teammate.

This deep, veteran roster -- from Terry to Vince Carter to Delonte West and even Rodrigue Beuabois -- has helped to carry the load throughout Nowitzki's strange season that now has him averaging 16.2 points, his lowest mark since his rookie season. The naked eye of the typical basketball fan suggests that Nowitzki continues to labor up and down the floor, yet the consensus remains that his right knee is on the mend.

"I'm sure it bothers him some and right now, because he's not making shots, it's in his head," Cuban said. "But the minute he starts making shots, it won't be in his head."

With Nowitzki's improvement timeline as fuzzy now as it was prior to this four-game hiatus, the Mavs' team game will be put to the test in February and in a Western Conference in which 11 teams are legitimately vying for eight playoff spots.

"It's OK. We got his back. That's what it's about," forward Shawn Marion said. "When you look at the NBA, this is a team sport. We all got to protect each other and have each other's back. That's all that matters. … It's about us picking up the slack and getting over this hump."

Only five of Dallas' 14 victories have come against teams with current winning records, and two of those came against the Utah Jazz.

They'll have to improve on that in February or risk tumbling down the standings. Oklahoma City was the first of 10 games -- and there's 14 total this month -- against teams with winning records. This list includes the Pacers on Friday and at Denver on Wednesday. The Clippers -- now with a healthy Chris Paul -- along with the Sixers, the Lakers and the Grizzlies are all on the docket.

The Timberwolves, one of four sub-.500 opponents on the schedule this month, could well move above by the time they welcome the Mavs back to town Feb. 10. Minnesota, by the way, has already beaten Dallas twice by a combined 32 points.

"These are all good tests. We'll find out more as we go along," Carlisle said. "My goal right now is to try to get everybody back healthy and get our team intact. The analysis of all that stuff is not my concern. My concern is a healthy team and playing our style and our system and doing it at full capacity.

"And then we'll see where the chips fall."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.