Updated: February 2, 2012, 3:30 AM ET

1. Thunder Roll As Dirk's Struggles Deepen

MacMahon By Tim MacMahon
ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- For much of the fourth quarter, this Interstate 35 showdown seemed like a flashback to the last season's Western Conference finals.

The young Oklahoma City Thunder let another double-digit lead disintegrate against a renovated version of the veteran Dallas Mavericks squad that dismissed Kevin Durant & Co. in five games en route to the franchise's long-awaited first championship parade.

But there were a couple of key clutch ingredients missing, preventing the Mavs from closing out what would have been an excruciatingly painful reminder of the West favorite's conference finals failure.

Grizzled, gray-haired point guard Jason Kidd sat on the Dallas bench in a suit, resting a strained calf that will sideline him at least the rest of the week. Dominant power forward Dirk Nowitzki has disappeared.

Nowitzki technically played in the Mavs' 96-85 loss at the American Airlines Center, a game the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder finished with a 10-1 run after the Mavs rallied from 10 points down to tie the game with 2:14 remaining. But Dirk doesn't even resemble the dude who has appeared in the past 10 All-Star games and earned the Finals MVP just months ago.

The 7-footer has been bad all season by his Hall of Fame standards. He was worse Wednesday night, scoring only eight points on 2-of-15 shooting.

"I'm just not in a good rhythm," said Nowitzki, whose scoring average (16.2 points) and field goal percentage (.430) are the lowest since his lockout-shortened rookie season of 1998-99. "I had some good looks there, I thought, in the second half especially. A couple of them were just in and out.

"I've just got to keep working, come in at night, like what I always do, lift on off days and get my shots up and just keep on working. Keep working in the right direction."

It's not an exaggeration to call this the worst shooting performance of Nowitzki's legendary career. It was only the fourth time in franchise history -- and a first for him -- that a Maverick has attempted at least 15 field goals and made two or fewer.

Yet, for those who have watched Nowitzki struggle night after night this season when he wasn't sitting out to try to get his game and sore right knee right, it can't be considered too shocking.

This is the sixth time this season Nowitzki has scored 12 or fewer points. To put that in perspective, Dirk had a dozen points during Dallas' OT-forcing 17-2 run in the final five minutes of Game 4 in last season's West finals, a Mavs win that basically crushed the Thunder's spirit in the series.

Coach Rick Carlisle and owner Mark Cuban continue to express ultimate confidence in Nowitzki, pointing out that he struggled to regain his rhythm immediately after returning from a nine-game absence due to a sprained knee last season. However, Nowitzki hasn't struggled like this for such an extended stretch since he was a homesick rookie wondering whether he was cut out for the NBA or better off heading back to Germany.

Nevertheless, nobody in the Mavs franchise seems too concerned. The good news is that Nowitzki's right knee isn't swelling and feels better than before his personal training camp last week.

"The rest is just hard work," said Nowitzki, who is showing up at the Mavs' practice court for nightly workouts with longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner.

"Every series of slumps, one of them's gotta be the worst," Cuban said. "One of them's gotta be bad, so that's what this is. I'm not worried about it at all. He's frustrated. His shot's not going. It's probably in his head some, but Holger just got to town. They'll work together. I'm not worried about it even a little bit."

Nowitzki, who averaged 32.2 points in the West finals and had his two best scoring games of this season against the Thunder, acknowledged he's trying to rebuild his confidence in his knee and game as he goes. It's especially alarming to see him unable to beat Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins off the dribble, no matter how much weight the slimmed-down big man dropped during the lockout.

The Mavs (14-9) have managed to stay in the thick of the West playoff picture despite Dirk's woes. Dallas is an even deeper team than last season, as evidenced by the Mavs' 3-1 record during his layoff compared to his 2-7 record when he sat last season. They'll keep running their offense through the big German and count on him to get right when it really counts.

"When he gets it rolling, hey, we're going to be tough to beat," closing sidekick Jason Terry said.

At this point, the Mavs just have to hope that happens by the time the playoffs begin or the West will be won by someone else.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. Follow Tim MacMahon on Twitter: @espn_macmahon

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2. CP3 Ends Clippers' Salt Lake Misery

By Spencer Ryan Hall
ESPN TrueHoop
lastname
Paul

SALT LAKE CITY -- Apparently the Clippers play much better when Chris Paul joins the team. After losing by 29 points in Utah two weeks ago without their star, a very different team beat the surprising Jazz in a playoff atmosphere in Energy Solutions Arena.

CP3 put on a magical performance, the kind he could never seem to conjure up during previous visits to SLC. With former nemesis Deron Williams safely stashed in New Jersey, however, Paul was free to put on a remarkable performance and finally present the local fans with reasons to accept him as the best point guard in the league.

His stat line was ridiculous: 15-for-24 for 34 points, 5 rebounds, 11 assists and nasty play after nasty play.

Paul's greatest contribution might be the swagger he brings to the Clippers. He's always had it, but now his new team carries itself as if it's earned something. It was clear these Clippers don't care/know about L.A. losing the past 42 of 43 games in Salt Lake City. The win gave the Clip Joint only their second win ever (2-38) in this city.

It's that swagger that has Blake Griffin battling for rebounds even though he has five fouls and putting up his own dominant line of 31 beastly points to go along with 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.

For all the great play from the Clippers, it was three missed technical free throws and 10 missed overall that doomed the home team. For the Jazz, the novelty of winning and overachieving has finally worn off. While previous heartbreakers at home to the Lakers and Mavericks may have felt like simple announcements that Jazz can play, this game was theirs for the taking.

For more from Hall, check out Salt City Hoops »

3. Daily Dime Live Rewind

Relive and note all the chatter, memes and Photoshops of Wednesday's Daily Dime Live.


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