|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
|As Dirk Nowitzki is quick to point out, Kevin Durant's game is improving at a rapid pace.|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The premise presented to the 7-footer who shoots it better than any other 7-footer ever has is that no one else on the NBA map could possibly have a better grasp of how it feels to be Kevin Durant these days.
Who better to size up the long-limbed bomber lighting up the 2012 playoffs than the greatest singular (and similarly built) force of the 2011 postseason?
Dirk Nowitzki listened to that suggestion and just laughed.
For all that these lanky Southwest scoring machines purportedly have in common, given their size and the mere three-hour drive that separates Dallas and Oklahoma City, Nowitzki knows the truth and isn't afraid to say it out loud.
"KD," Nowitzki says, "is way ahead of my curve."
Since the defending champs were broomed out of the first round by Durant's rolling Thunder, exiting the playoffs faster than any other team, Nowitzki admits that he hasn't missed a dribble of Oklahoma City's ride to its first NBA Finals ... except for the time bad weather knocked out his satellite during OKC's Game 6 clincher over San Antonio. When the Thunder are on -- avenging a 2010 first-round exit to Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers in a mere five games or letting the shell-shocked Spurs run their winning streak to an eye-popping 20 before sticking them with four straight L's -- Dirk doesn't leave the couch.
He wants to track precisely how much higher Durant is nudging the bar for supersized shooters that Bob McAdoo set and Larry Bird first raised.
"He's arguably the best player in the league right now," Nowitzki told ESPN.com over the weekend. "I see a guy that really has no holes.
"He's a 6-10 guy with a 7-4 wingspan who can shoot it from the parking lot. He's posting up now. In transition he's so long that, when he gets a pass from the 3-point line, it's a layup or dunk with one step. He's got the one- or two-dribble pull-up, which you need to be a great scorer, because you can't just shoot 3s or go to the basket if you want to be a great scorer, 'cause sometimes you can't get all the way to the bucket. He can go both ways, one or two dribbles and up.
"And he's clutch, too. He's hit big shot after big shot all season long. He made three game winners on us this year. I thought he's always been clutch, but now it's almost like you know he's going to make them. He's phenomenal."
Dirk isn't done, either.
"He's way more of a 3-man than I ever was," Nowitzki continued. "He handles the ball way better on the break than I ever did. He's got deeper range. And he's doing all this at 23. He's won the scoring title three times in a row, so that he means he won the first one at 21. I barely got through my rookie year. When I was 21, Gary Trent was still killing me in practice."
OK, OK. The gap between the kid and the ousted champ, who turns 34 later this month, is not nearly as wide as Nowitzki makes it sounds. Obviously.
Durant, though, has made it easy to get swept up in the hyperbole over the past month. Another playoff victim has fallen prey to it, too, with San Antonio's Stephen Jackson proclaiming during the last round that trying to slow Durant down at the minute is the tallest of orders.
"Imagine Dirk with Blake Griffin's athleticism," Jackson says.
Durant isn't quite putting it all together to that extent, either, but you get the idea. Sixteen straight points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Spurs, followed by his 34 points and 14 rebounds while playing every second of the 48 minutes in the Game 6 clincher, will bring out the superlatives.
This was also the first season that you could call Durant a two-way player, but it's probably wisest to grade his D after the Finals, with Durant sure to draw some LeBron James duty to test that athleticism. Yet the louder questions clearly persist about what sort of mindset James will tote into the Finals -- his third Finals -- with the memories of last spring's epic failures against Nowitzki's Mavericks sure to be brought up far more often than LeBron's punishing 33.6 points per game in a seven-game epic against Boston in the East finals.
Durant, meanwhile, hits the big stage in the zone of his life, with seemingly no one wondering if he might be overwhelmed by his first taste. The assumption, amazingly, is that he'll just continue to roll, pumped up by home-court advantage and emboldened by the way OKC just mowed through the three teams (Mavs, Lakers and Spurs) that combined to represent the West in the championship round for the past 13 seasons.
This is the stuff Nowitzki can unquestionably speak to with the utmost authority. A year ago, like the T-shirt says, Dirk was That Dude. The 2011 playoffs, especially the middle two rounds against the Lakers and Thunder, were his own personal party. A rewriting-his-legacy kind of party.
"The opponents are great, the challenges are great, but when you're that hot it feels like you step on the court with a great rhythm shooting," Nowitzki said, rewinding to his own magical run that included a five-game schooling of Durant's Thunder in the West finals. "Any 3 I took during the playoffs felt great. It felt like it was going in every time. You feel like you never get tired. You just want to stay out there as long as you can.
"For me, at the beginning of my career, I was basically a third or fourth option. We had [Michael Finley]. We had Steve [Nash]. We had Nick Van Exel that one year [in 2003]. Then we got rid of everybody and it was kind of my team, so I had to grow into the [closer] role. I never had to take big shots when I was 20 or 23. Once everybody left, it took me awhile to get used to being in that position. But now I like being in that position. I like to be in that situation. Everybody is looking at you to get it done at the end. And it's a great feeling when you do.
"But I gotta admit [that] their whole team is playing well. [James] Harden shot 14-for-23 from 3 in the San Antonio series. [Derek] Fisher can't even miss a shot right now. [Russell] Westbrook has gotten so much better playing under control. He looks for the other guys. He's still shooting a lot, but he's gotten better with the midrange game. He killed us with the midrange shot.
"I think all those guys got better. [Serge] Ibaka got better. [Kendrick] Perkins is a great defender. They've really got all the ingredients I think you need to be a great team. They've got defenders in [Thabo] Sefolosha and Perkins, they can spread the floor and they have three legit scorers. Three legit playmakers. Two is not even enough anymore. They've got three guys that can create their own shot at any time and score at any time."
Which isn't the most comforting thought if, like Nowitzki, you live in the same neighborhood as Durant and the Thunder and you have to figure out how to keep up with them in a conference they now own.
"If you look at 'em, it looks like they're going to be great for the next 10 years if they find a way to keep Harden and Ibaka," Nowitzki said. "Hopefully that's going to be hard for them, 'cause I think after this playoff run, people might throw a lot of money at those guys."
In most Western Conference outposts, pessimism trumps Nowitzki's hopes, such is the speed of Durant's progression from skinny gunner who couldn't cope with the weight-room rigors of the bench press to ruthless, ring-chasing go-to guy in just five seasons. He's seemingly getting only more well-rounded as opposed to just getting older, consistently making people around him better for the first time and fueled by a drive that -- to hear Dirk tell it -- sounds Kobe-esque.
Well aware that Durant has been working for months to try to master Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway jumper, Dirk said: "I just think, as you get older, it's an easy shot to get off. I think Kobe [Bryant] recognized that. All you do is create a little separation and you can shoot over the defender. But I don't really know what [pushed Durant] to try it.
"I think he's such a basketball freak that he just watched it a lot and decided to copy it. At the All-Star Game, their coaches told me that Kevin is such a basketball fanatic and freak that he watches film on everybody in the league all the time. He practices for hours and hours and stays extra to shoot and work on different things. He's a freak of nature and a workaholic and he deserves all the praise he gets.
"Every time he shoots now I think it's going in. I'm surprised when he misses."
Surprised and not surprised is more like it.
Dirk said it again: "He's so far ahead of my curve."