1. Facing Heat, Dirk's Recovery Looks Good
For now, the process involves placing little emphasis on the numbers Nowitzki produces on any postgame stat sheet.
"Because he's been out so long it's got to be at least a three-week period of him getting re-acclimated, re-conditioned," Carlisle said. "But he's got a great spirit for a guy that's one of the top 10 or 12 best to ever play. He knows we need him. That's why he's out there. Statistically, don't even look at this and try to analyze it until the middle of January."
That said, it was difficult to ignore what the numbers revealed for Nowitzki Wednesday night despite Dallas falling 119-109 in overtime to the Miami Heat.
Season-high 29 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back set. Season-high 19 points, including 15 in the second half.
In his sixth game back, Nowitzki overcame a rusty start, got hot late and dropped in his vintage, fading jumper off one leg with three seconds left in regulation to send it to overtime. But he lacked the legs to pull Dallas through for a signature victory.
At least that's the case right now.
The Mavericks (13-20) have dropped seven of eight games and aren't into moral victories. But they are encouraged by the prospects provided by Nowitzki's progress. The concern is whether there's enough time to establish the chemistry to get back into the playoff race, and if Nowitzki, 34, can offer enough boost on his surgically-repaired right knee.
By most accounts Wednesday, the knee is responding well. The team, well, not so much. Nowitzki was far more concerned about why -- and how -- his team squandered a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter than how his knee had responded to the most extended test of his season.
After missing the first 27 games of the season, Nowitzki made his debut in a Dec. 23 loss at San Antonio, then played his previous season-high of 26 minutes four nights later in a loss to Oklahoma City. His comeback was marred by losses and poor shooting performances in the initial games, but he's turned a bit of a corner with the turn of the calendar. Nowitzki made five of his seven shots in Tuesday's win in Washington to help end a six-game losing streak that started with a 110-95 loss to Miami in Dallas.
"It was really ugly when I first came back," Nowitzki said Wednesday. "I was two steps slow to everything, and had no lift. But I worked extremely hard the last couple of weeks. I've run after games, do stuff after practices, and I feel like I've got a little more pep in my step again."
Nowitzki said he will speak with Carlisle in the next couple of days about returning to the starting lineup and increasing his minutes. He has come off the bench all six games he's played this season, but was hopeful of regaining his starting job, barring any setbacks, by next week's three-game trip that follows Saturday's home game against New Orleans.
About 90 minutes before Wednesday's game against the Heat, Carlisle said Nowitzki was still playing under a restriction on his minutes but wouldn't offer specifics. After the game, Carlisle declined to offer a status update on when Nowitzki might get back into the starting lineup, but did say the situation "continues to be promising" and that the team will "keep moving forward" with the process.
"He's getting back to where he needs to be from a conditioning standpoint," Carlisle said. "His health is good. The conditioning and the rhythm is what is going to take some time. The fine line is between not going too long in stretches of minutes so that he can play some extended minutes on the one hand, or play some extended minutes so he can really get some conditioning in the games."
Call it the Dirk Dilemma.
The competitor in Nowtizki, who is just two seasons removed from leading the Mavericks to the NBA title, wants to return to form as quickly as possible to salvage this season. But there's also a bigger-picture perspective, with Dallas positioned as a prime player in free agency this summer and aims to surround a healthy Nowitzki with a championship-level supporting cast going into next season.
The Mavericks currently sit in 12th place in the Western Conference standings and are four games out of the eighth and final playoff seed. Nowitzki insists he's conditioned -- mentally and physically -- to get back into contention and make the most of this season.
"I said it during the losing streak -- we're not as talented as some of these teams, but we have to make up for it," Nowitzki said. "I like our chances. We compete. I like what we're doing. We just have to keep on working and keep getting better. Execution down the stretch has been our problem all year. We've got to work on that. Last couple of years, we knew each other so well, it's going to take us a little more time to figure some game situations out."
Meanwhile, he is also figuring out how to read his body and monitor stages of recovery as he plays his way into shape following the first surgery of his 14-year NBA career.
He's coming off the same knee procedure Heat guard Dwyane Wade had over the summer. Wade said Wednesday he understands exactly what Nowitzki is going through trying to regain his footing during the season.
"It's going to take it's own time," Wade said on coping with the recovery process. "It's frustrating, but I think nights like tonight, it makes him feel good that he hit some tough shots and he knows that, 'OK, I've got a long way to go but I can still do it.' But it's going to be certain nights when it's just not going to be there."
Wade, who has faced criticism in some circles about his game being in decline after the surgery, joked that Nowitzki won't have to deal with scrutiny at one level.
"One good about him is he doesn't have to worry about someone saying he's lost his athleticism, because he never had any," Wade said, laughing. "He's able to still to do some similar things that he's done because he plays on the ground. But I'm sure for him, certain moves that he makes, getting his legs into certain shots, it's not going to be there. The biggest thing you do is keep rehabbing, keep it going throughout the year. It's not the easiest feat to do."
But Nowitzki is committed -- and improving.
Minute by minute.
He's no longer wearing the knee brace he had during the first few games he played after coming back.
"The legs feel a lot better than they did a week ago," Nowitzki said. "I'm going to keep working and try to help this team more. Ultimately, I'll start again maybe in a week or so, get my minutes back up, and we'll go from there."
With Nowitzki back, the Mavericks hope to restore order. And that will take a little more time.
So for now, Carlisle won't put much stock in the standings.
Or in Nowitzki's stats.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Joe Johnson's been having a dog of a season, but he was the most important man on the court tonight. Classic Atlanta performance, with a hyper-efficient 32 points on just 18 shots. Five-of-eight from 3, too! A bit of iso-Joe, yes, but on a night when he was this hot, it didn't impact much.
Least valuable player: Kendrick Perkins did some good work on the boards for the Thunder. That was about all the good he did, allowing a devoted Brook Lopez to brutalize him in the post for 25 crucial points as the Nets closed the Thunder down. To make matters worse, he put up an unnecessary offensive foul in the final two minutes that got Kevin Durant ejected in frustration, ruining all hope of a Thunder comeback.
That was ... shocking: It was startling enough for Brooklyn to blast off to an early 23-point lead on OKC's home floor -- prior to tonight, the Thunder were 16-2 in their house. But it was even more shocking that the Nets were able to weather a determined Thunder comeback and close out the game after OKC tied it early in the fourth. The Thunder aren't an easy team to close out when you give them momentum, but the Nets did so in spades, outscoring OKC 25-8 after the tie.
Recap | Box score
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins showed everyone why the Kings have been so patient with him, posting 18 points, 16 rebounds, and six assists. For long stretches, the Kings' offense ran through Boogie, for whom the Cavs had no answer.
X factor: Jason Thompson's night was nearly as impressive as Cousins'. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. He also did a nice job on Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson, who shot a combined 7-for-19.
That was ... larcenous:Both teams were sloppy with the ball at times, but eight of the Cavaliers' 13 turnovers occurred on Sacramento steals, which led to a lot of easy fast-break points for the Kings.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Paul George. Indiana's best two-way player led the charge as Indiana built an early 17-point lead and re-emerged early in the fourth to score six straight points when his team needed a spark. Throw in his game-high 14 boards, and nobody had a larger impact.
X factor: Kevin Seraphin. He hit four of his five shots in the second quarter as Washington crawled out of a huge deficit. The Wizards eventually proved unable to trade body blows with the Pacers, but Seraphin was a key reason they didn't lose by 25.
LVPs: The HandsBros. With George Hill sidelined and DJ Augustin starting, Indiana needed Ben Hansbrough to mop up a few minutes. He instead ran the offense into the ground while committing two embarrassing turnovers. His big brother, Tyler, wasn't much better, and the two combined for 0-for-6 shooting and four turnovers.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Mike Conley. The Grizzlies point guard finished the game with 23 points and 9 assists while thoroughly out-playing Rajon Rondo.
LVP: Kevin Garnett. The Celtics power forward was 1-for-7 from the field in the first half and finished shooting a less-than-respectable 5-for-14. More importantly, the Celtics' defensive anchor was an overall minus-15 and missed two key free throws that put any potential comeback on ice.
X factor: The Grizzlies shot over 60 percent in the first half, which allowed them to win comfortably despite only shooting 34 percent over the final two frames.
Recap | Box score
MVP: LeBron James scored 32 points on 20 shots, grabbed 12 rebounds, and notched nine assists to lead the Heat in a thrilling overtime victory against Dallas. Oh, and he had zero fouls again.
Defining moment: James threaded the needle to hit Shane Battier in the corner for a 3 with 14 seconds left in regulation, putting Miami up 103-101 and snuffing out Dallas's comeback. Dirk Nowitzki's overtime-forcing jumper was all for nothing.
That was ... impressive: LeBron James extended his 20-plus point streak to 35 games. He's one of only seven players to reach that mark since 1986. The others: Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Tim Duncan. How this man is producing at his age, I hope to figure out before I turn 36 years old. Duncan finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots in the win over Milwaukee.
X factor: The Spurs won the turnover battle 16-8. Considering how slim the final margin of this game ended up being, winning the turnover battle so comfortably was huge. For the Bucks, nine of those turnovers came from Larry Sanders -- who has no business committing four turnovers -- and Brandon Jennings.
That was ... not what the Spurs wanted on the front night of a back-to-back. Playing their third game in a four-games-in-five-nights stretch, the Spurs looked like they would be able to rest the entire fourth quarter ahead of Thursday night's game against the New York Knicks. Instead, the Bucks closed the gap and Gregg Popovich was forced to go back to his starters.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Omer Asik finished the game with a career-high-tying 21 points, though he was benched with 4:23 remaining in the fourth quarter due to machups.
That was ... old school: To start out the game, centers Omer Asik and Robin Lopez were the game's leading scorers, going right at each other with an assortment of post moves. 2013 or 1993?
X factor: Ryan Anderson. Every time the Rockets threatened to put the game away, Anderson hit a jumper, making things scary for the home team. He finished with 18 points.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Though the scoring load for Utah was pretty evenly spread for the game, Paul Millsap gets the MVP honors for setting the tone early. He finished with 14 points on 7-for-8 shooting, not missing a shot until well into the third quarter.
X factor: The Utah bench. Enes Kanter had 15 points and seven rebounds, throwing in a few monster jams to inject some much-needed energy into the arena and the rest of the Jazz. Gordon Hayward, meanwhile, had 17 points, dropping in three 3-pointers. Derrick Favors had three monster blocks.
Defining moment: Less a moment, more a statistic: 2-for-17. That was Minnesota's line from beyond the arc. Three-point shooting has been a major thorn in the Timberwolves' side this season, and it continued to plague them tonight.
3. Wednesday's Best
Joe Johnson, Nets: That's the kind of offensive production the Nets are paying the big bucks for. Johnson dropped in a season-high 33 points, including five 3-pointers, as his team rode a hot fourth quarter to a 110-93 win in Oklahoma City.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Reeling Celtics: The team that was one "good job, good effort" from knocking off the eventual champion Heat last June took its fourth straight loss, with former Green-teamer Tony Allen dropping 15 points on Boston. With Indy, Atlanta and New York looming, a seven-game losing streak is not out of the question.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I said, 'It's a bad call.' They've got a quick trigger now."
--Thunder forward Kevin Durant, on how he got ejected from an eventual loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
8. Man, That's Messed Up
9. Stat Check
The Clippers won their last 17 games of 2012, but they're 0-2 in 2013, with losses at Denver on Tuesday and at Golden State on Wednesday. The 2012-2013 Clippers are one of 14 teams in NBA history to win 17 or more consecutive games in one season. More than half of those teams (eight of 14), including each of the last four, lost at least two straight games immediately following those winning streaks.
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Luis Scola finished with 21 points, nine assists and four rebounds, including a 14-point third quarter that came by way of sharp shooting from about 17 feet out. He hit P.J. Tucker for a 15-foot jumper with just over a minute to play to give Phoenix a buffer of a six-point lead.
X factor: Phoenix point guard Goran Dragic was aggressive on both ends against Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday. Holiday did post a triple-double (16 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds) but he also had six turnovers and hit just six of 16 shots, in part thanks to Dragic's defense.
That was ... awkward: A large contingent of Kansas State fans in Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl got off three first-half chants pleading to see former Wildcat Michael Beasley. Alvin Gentry obliged in the second quarter, and the Sixers outscored the Suns 17-6 during that span. The forward didn't return for the rest of the game.
MVP: David Lee was the linchpin of a fantastic defensive effort, but he also keyed the offense from the high post most of the night. Lee's sweet touch from 15 feet and phenomenal court vision had the Clippers' frontcourt flummoxed.
LVP: Blake Griffin. This was Griffin's worst game this season. He shot 2-for-11, had no offensive rebounds, and was lit up by Lee. Griffin's wide-open 3-point attempt that hit the side of the backboard summed up his night pretty well.
X factor: Help defense. Give Mark Jackson credit -- his team has bought into a help-oriented defensive philosophy. The Warriors allowed no easy layups, they rebounded (plus-15), and they held the Clips to 36 percent shooting. Stephen Curry was great (31 points), but the D was even better.
MVP: Raptor point guards. With the focus being on if Kyle Lowry would accept a reserve role, he's happily done so for three games. He and Jose Calderon combined for just three field goal attempts and dished 22 assists.
X factor: Terrence Ross. The rookie had a huge breakout game, scoring a career-high 24 points, including six of nine from long range, and chipping in two steals as well. He's become a fan favorite very quickly.
That was ... rare. The Raptors hadn't beaten the Blazers since January of 2008, a span of eight games. That includes early in December, when a Batum-and-Matthews-less Blazers stomped the Raptors 92-74, the turning point of their season.
MVP: Carlos Boozer did whatever he wanted offensively against the Magic's front line, finishing with a season-high 31 points and 11 rebounds. Boozer made a living in the paint and had his funky jumpshot going down from midrange for good measure.
X factor: Even though Jameer Nelson missed a potential game-tying jumper with 5.9 seconds left, he deserves an honorable mention for keeping Orlando within striking distance until the waning moments of the game by tying a career-high with 32 points.
That was ... more like it. Coming off an embarrassing loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on New Year's Eve, and despite not having Joakim Noah (flu) available to play, Boozer, Luol Deng (23 points), and Taj Gibson (21 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks) carried the Bulls to victory.