Updated: January 3, 2013, 4:15 AM ET

1. Facing Heat, Dirk's Recovery Looks Good

By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has a unique way of gauging Dirk Nowitzki's progress as he works his way back into rhythm after recently returning from knee surgery.

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.

Dirk Nowitzki
David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/Getty ImagesWrong-footed jumper? Check. Dirk looks sharp.

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.

Dimes past: December 18 | 19 | 20 | 21-22 | 23 | 25 | 26 | 28-29 | 30 | 31 | Jan. 1

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