|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
|Playoff foes for the first time, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant have a deep appreciation for each other.|
LOS ANGELES -- It's a frequent but little-known staple of Dirk Nowitzki's German-engineered game night routine.
When the Dallas Mavericks play at home and Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers are playing in their usual time zone, Nowitzki tries to make sure he's back at the house and parked in front of his big screen in time to watch the Lakers in crunch time.
"I get home around 11, so it works out a lot where the timing's perfect," Nowitzki said. "I just sit there and eat and watch Kobe in the fourth quarter."
As such, Nowitzki was predictably plopped on his couch on April 13, settling in for his favorite late-night programming after Dallas blasted New Orleans in its regular-season finale. For a minute there, Nowitzki even allowed himself to get sucked into the teasing drama unfolding in Sacramento, where the Lakers were in the throes of throwing away a 20-point lead to the Kings.
With a loss, L.A. would have fallen to the No. 3 seed in the West, suddenly bumping the Mavs up to No. 2 and a first-round date with the David West-less instead of a Portland team everyone -- including the Lakers -- wanted to avoid. Yet there was Bryant, not long after he reeled off five straight misses, rising up to drain a 3 from the right wing to force overtime, which the Lakers went on to dominate to not only lock up the No. 2 spot but ensure home-court advantage if they wound up in the second round against the Mavs.
"If they jump out at him and take that shot away, maybe we're waiting for the Lakers in Dallas," Nowitzki said, shaking his head as he relived the story.
"But I knew it was going in as soon as he let go of it."
Nowitzki wouldn't have been able to muster any lasting outrage even if his Mavericks hadn't stolen Monday night's Game 1 at Staples Center. That's because he never expects Kobe to miss, no matter how much statistical evidence is in circulation that debunks the unmatched respect for clutchness that Bryant still generates from his peers.
Dirk thought the Sacramento shot was going in. He had an under-the-basket view for Bryant's potential game-winning 3 in Game 1 of the first-ever Mavs/Lakers series in the Dirk-And-Kobe Era and was convinced that one was going down, too. He's been spitting out the same Kobe scouting report for years, which is understandable when you recall that Nowitzki was part of a Dallas squad that Bryant once lit up for 62 points.
"Nothing's changed," Dirk said Tuesday night as he readied for Wednesday's Game 2, unmoved by the sight of Bryant coming up empty on three straight possessions -- including a pretty good look at that potential game winner -- in Game 1's final 20 seconds.
"I've repeatedly said he's the best player in the world. There's nothing he can't do. I would say there's no shot he can't make."
The two stars, hooking up in a playoff series for the first time, can't be classified as close. Beyond a few All-Star Weekend chats over the years, they haven't talked much. But those who know both say that, as obsessed-with-success technicians, they're very aware of each other and want to know what the other guy does prep-work-wise. So they've naturally studied each other's moves, tendencies and mechanics.
|Representing the West for years, Kobe and Dirk usually get to catch up during All-Star Weekend.|
At almost every All-Star Game, they typically end up having the same conversation. Which boils down to Bryant marveling at the rainbow arc Nowitzki puts on his jumpers and Dirk countering by asking how Kobe can flatly laser in those line drives from so many different spots.
"He's just got a great touch," Nowitzki said. "The other day in New Orleans, he drove it and [Emeka] Okafor contests and he slings in this hook shot like he's shot a million of them. Like it's nothin'.
"I remember we played them once in L.A., and he was stuck in the corner by our bench. So he just spins and throws in a lefty 3."
True story. The proof, capped by a priceless reaction from Mavs owner Mark Cuban, is right here.
Just don't ask Nowitzki for a detailed recap of the 62-point eruption on Dec. 20, 2005. Kobe went on to score 81 points against the helpless Toronto Raptors about a month later, but the sight of Bryant ringing up 62 in three quarters before sitting out the fourth -- with a scoreboard reading of Kobe 62, Mavs 61 after three -- left its own scar.
"Sick," Nowitzki said.
The reality, though, is that they're far more alike than different. They're as similar as they can be when we're talking about the sweetest-shooting big man in the history of the sport and a killer slasher/shotmaker from the wings who has come closer to living up to the daunting (dreaded?) Next Jordan label than anyone else.
Both are maniacal when it comes to putting in extra gym work beyond the game's standard practice-floor requirements. Kobe and Dirk are also just about the first two names you'd put on the NBA's All-Playing-Hurt Squad, given the variety of injuries they've combined to shrug off. You'd likewise struggle to name another player, aside from maybe Dwight Howard, who gets more credit or blame than these two for-the-ages scorers when their respective teams are going well or not.
Not surprisingly, Nowitzki also knows exactly what he would want to swipe from Bryant if he could even if that means we really have to broaden the comparison beyond just the two of them to include their respective supporting casts over the years.
What does Kobe have in his locker, Nowitzki was asked, that he wishes he had?
"Five rings," Dirk shot back instantly.