Just three years ago the Dallas Mavericks were in the NBA Finals, and a team that got everyone's best on a nightly basis. Right now, however, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks are just fighting to make the postseason.
Nowitzki knows what it feels like to be the hunted, just like the defending champion Celtics have been this season. But now that he is on the other side of the equation, the 2007 NBA Most Valuable Player is hoping to lead his inconsistent yet talented Mavericks (25-18) to a statement victory today against hot Boston (36-9) at TD Banknorth Garden.
"I'd rather be up there with the best of them and have the best record," Nowitzki said. "That's a fun thing to know every night that teams are coming after you and you're finding ways to win. That was a great position to be in. Sometimes being the underdog is not bad. But I'd rather be up there and winning."
Nowitzki averaged a career-best 26.6 points per game the 2005-06 season. The 30-year-old is averaging 26 points per game this season, fifth in the league, and shooting 91.7 percent from the line. He also has been hot of late, scoring 39 points in a win against Utah Jan. 17 and a season-high 44 in a loss at Denver Jan. 13.
"He's sensational," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He's a great basketball player. He makes great shots. He's a matchup nightmare every night. He's a tough guy to guard at [power forward] because he's quicker than most. He's too big for [small forwards] to guard. He still is a great 3-point shooter, but he's playing more in the post and in other areas now."
As Nowitzki goes, so go the Mavericks.
The seven-time All-Star is averaging 27.7 points and a .482 3-point shooting percentage in victories and 23.8 points and a .255 3-point percentage in defeats. And even when Nowitzki has a great game individually, when Dallas loses he often blames himself.
"I always put a lot of pressure on myself," Nowitzki said. "If we win, that's great. If we lose, I always feel like I didn't do my job. Even if I have a decent game in a loss, I feel like I should've done more, hit one more shot, got one more stop, one more rebound, or whatever.
"That's how I've always looked at it and that's how it's been the last four years since Steve [Nash] and Mike [Finley] left. I was the face of the franchise. You got to take the highs with the lows. Sometimes I do get down [after] tough losses like I did in the last couple years in the playoffs. All you can do is take the blame and work out in the summer to become a better player the next [season]."
After recently losing four straight games, the Mavericks won back-to-back against Utah and at Philadelphia last Monday. Dallas next had a 34-point loss at Milwaukee Wednesday, followed by a 21-point win at Detroit Friday. Dallas is 5-14 when foes score more than 100 points.
"What's missing is the consistency, the consistent effort defensively," Nowitzki said. "Scoring-wise, I think we're OK. We've got weapons. We got Josh [Howard] back, finally, who offensively is a big-time scorer for us. Defense, we have a lot of struggles. Milwaukee scored 133 points in a game, which is embarrassing."
Said Rivers, "We look at them as the good Dallas . . . when they play well, [they're] really good. I watched them [against Detroit] and they were really good. Then you watch the game against Milwaukee, and they couldn't get stops and they couldn't make shots."
The Mavericks blew a two-games-to-none lead in the 2006 Finals to eventual champion Miami. Since then, Dallas has been bounced out in the first round two years in a row and made major changes in acquiring guard Jason Kidd from New Jersey for Devin Harris and replacing coach Avery Johnson with ex-Celtic Rick Carlisle.
"We lost in the first round [in 2007] after we won almost 70 games," Nowitzki said. "With that came changes. As a franchise, you have to make decisions on the fly. We went for stuff. You can't always look back as to was that deal good or was that change good. You did what you had to do in that point in time. You have to make the best of it and roll with it.
"We're still trying to figure this out and make it work."
Celtics guard Tony Allen is expected to miss his 11th straight game today with a right ankle sprain. The 6-foot-4-inch, 213-pounder hopes to return Wednesday against Sacramento.
Allen, who hasn't played since Jan. 4 against New York, didn't practice yesterday but worked on shooting and conditioning. He said he has soreness in the ankle and needs to strengthen his right leg.