Sunday, May 29, 2011 Updated: June 21, 9:16 PM ET
Who is going to stop Dirk Nowitzki?
By Kevin Arnovitz ESPN.com
Heat veteran Udonis Haslem held Dirk Nowitzki to 31 percent shooting in the 2006 Finals.
There will be moments in the flow of the game when you accomplish everything you want to defensively against Dirk Nowitzki: aggressively deny him the ball, prevent him from getting to one of his favorite spots on the floor, crowd his space, refuse to bite on his shot fake, extend your arms straight up, firmly plant your feet, maintain proper balance and prepare yourself to move if he drives.
Every fundamental you've been taught over thousands of hours of instruction has been applied. You're executing the kind of man-to-man, on-ball defense you've spent your life perfecting -- and you're playing it against the very best.
With the shot clock expiring, Nowitzki has nowhere to go. You've forced the weight of that seven-foot frame away from the basket because Nowitzki is back on his heels. Falling away, Nowitzki manages the slightest of bounces off his left foot, while he kicks the right leg forward. He then brings the ball over his head with both of his arms, as you continue to harass without fouling.
By all measures of biomechanics, this can't be the way a person would ideally want to shoot a basketball. The ball floats upward, but how can an orb released at that angle possible find net?
The home crowd is thinking the same thing and it can sense a defensive stop with growing anticipation.
The ball comes in for its landing and falls through the rim never glancing the iron.
Textbook defensive principles, and for what? You might as well have been an usher who personally escorted Nowitzki to the basket.
It's in this spirit the Miami Heat coaching staff is telling anyone who is a candidate to guard Nowitzki in the NBA Finals the same thing:
"He's going to make jump shots," coach Erik Spoelstra says. "He's a shot-maker."
Accepting this reality is half the battle if you're a defender charged with the responsibility of stopping -- or at least slowing -- Nowitzki.
"He's going to make shots," Heat center Joel Anthony says, echoing his coach's message (this mantra is clearly in heavy rotation headed into the Finals). "That's what we have to realize. Sometimes it's not because there isn't good defense. He's just that much of a great offensive player."
In other words, you can't beat yourself up over those fadeaways that Nowitzki will drain despite your best efforts. Don't become frustrated. While that seems like an easy enough task for a professional, managing the mental game, not falling victim to the hopelessness that naturally comes with feeling like you failed despite your best effort, might be the toughest part of the Nowitzki assignment.
The fade-away might be Nowitzki's trademark, but he finds plenty of other ways to score. He and his point guards run some of the most patient and persistent pick-and-rolls in the business. Dirk and his dance partner will twist the action until they finally get Dirk space. When he finds an opening, Nowitzki will unleash a power dribble and finish at the rim. Front him up high and Kidd will lob a pass over the defender, which Dirk will catch in the paint, where he's lethal. If your perimeter defenders pull into the paint, Dirk will kick out and find those shooters clean looks at 3-pointers.
In his 15 playoff games this postseason, Nowitzki has recorded a player efficiency rating (PER) of 27.25. His true shooting percentage (which accounts for free throws and 3-pointers along with field goals) stands at a gaudy 64 percent. He hits more field goals per game than any other playoff performer this spring and is sinking 53 percent of his jump shots outside the paint -- and that doesn't include foul shots generated from those attempts.
Four Heat players will likely log shifts guarding Nowitzki: starting power forward Chris Bosh, Anthony, reserve big man Udonis Haslem and LeBron James. Each brings with him a different track record against Nowitzki and each has a varied portfolio of skills with which to tackle the challenge.
In terms of stature, Bosh's physical profile makes him the most natural cover for Nowitzki, at least from a physical standpoint. Bosh surrenders less height than any of the Heat's stable of defenders, and his ranginess will be a strong asset.
The Heat's primary strategy against Nowitzki on pick-and-rolls will be the "hard show," with the explicit goal of running him toward the rim. When Nowitzki flares off a screen at the top of the floor, the Heat would like to stay on top of him, which would push him toward the help defenders.
Bosh's pick-and-roll coverage has been one of the least heralded success stories of the Heat's ascendant defense. He has become Mr. Hard Show in the confines of the Heat's defense and will challenge the Mavericks on those high screens for Nowitzki.
Bosh did a reasonably good job on Nowitzki in the team's two meetings this season. Against Bosh, Nowitzki shot 6-for-14 from the field, and drew two fouls on Bosh -- both in transition. Nowitzki beat Bosh not so much in the post or on the pick-and-roll, but with a couple of clever off-ball dives to the basket and courtesy of a pin-down from Tyson Chandler that Bosh didn't have a prayer of fighting through.
Although he has downplayed his performance this week in interviews, Haslem earned the title of "Dirk-stopper" from Heat fans in the 2006 Finals. In six games, Nowitzki shot only 31 percent from the field on 13-of-42 shooting when guarded by Haslem.
"You just have to make [Nowitzki] work for everything," Haslem says. "You have to play the percentages. Every shot has to be a tough shot."
Haslem will study the film and he'll find that Dirk loves to go left, then launch over his right shoulder. The trick for a 6-foot-8 defender like Haslem is not to bite on Nowitzki's sequence of shot fakes, a mistake Nowitzki invites and invariably turns into a shooting foul.
"I don't know that leaving your feet even helps," Haslem says. "At 7-foot, he's going to get the shot over you."
Due to injury, Haslem didn't have the opportunity to guard Nowitzki this season, but his track record, exceptional discipline and willingness to get in Nowitzki's kitchen will make Haslem the natural choice when Bosh checks out toward the end of the first quarter.
Anthony has asserted himself as one of the league's top help defenders this season, but the studious big man also had surprising success against Nowitzki this season. Anthony was effective fronting Nowitzki and also was quick to close out when Nowitzki caught passes on the weak side.
"You have to start with the catch, get him out of his comfort and take away those sweet spots." Anthony said. "That's a big part. Once he gets the ball, he has such a great rhythm offensively."
Nowitzki shot only 3-for-13 from the floor when Anthony was on him. Though Anthony tends to be a bit foul-prone, Nowitzki earned only four free throws against Anthony. Grand total: 10 points in 15 true shots.
Those sterling numbers aside, Anthony is probably an inferior choice to Bosh and Haslem for a variety of reasons. First, he has a tendency to leave his feet in search of the block and is merely an average post defender when Nowitzki choose to back him down.
But there's a better reason for Spoelstra to opt for Anthony's counterpart in the frontcourt to guard Nowitzki: Anthony's tremendous help defense. The Heat would prefer to have Nowitzki put the ball on the floor and allow the Heat's athletic help defenders -- Anthony foremost among them -- challenge Dirk in the paint. In other words, Anthony will come in handy behind the primary defenders.
That scheme doesn't come without risk. By sticking Anthony on Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood, the Heat run the risking of getting killed on the offensive glass since Anthony struggles as a defensive rebounder.
Defending perimeter players and defending big men require two different skill sets, but guarding Nowitzki demands a player know how to do both.
Fortunately for the Heat, they have the league's most versatile defender in James -- a true 1-through-5 defender who has covered everyone from Marcus Camby to Derrick Rose this season -- and has done so with amazing proficiency.
Defenders must challenge Nowitzki with physicality, something James brings to every matchup, big or small. James boasts the size to crowd an offensive threat who's looking for space to get off a shot, and the quickness to cut off any potential drive. James has the length to front Nowitzki, and the agility to reposition himself in an instant after an entry.
In the Chicago series, Spoelstra utilized LeBron as his ninth-inning closer, assigning James to Rose during crucial closing possessions. If Spoelstra elects to maintain that pattern and hand responsibility for defending Nowitzki to James down the stretch, these one-on-one matchups will emerge as some of the most electrifying and defining moments of what promises to be a fascinating chess match of a series.