DALLAS — They're commissioning a Dirk Nowitzki statue. Everyone's ordering sauerkraut on their hot dogs. Jerry Jones is scratching his head, wondering how a guy in short pants became Big D's favorite athlete.
Yep, Nowitzki's 48-point Game 1 against the Thunder has taken this city by storm.
The league, too. One NBA executive told me that in Chicago, site of the other conference finals, the basketball people are “flabbergasted” at how much better the Dirkenschtein has gotten at the ripe old age of 32.
But before we write off these Western Conference Finals as unwinnable for the Thunder, can we slow the euphoria for the German Express?
Nowitzki was unstoppable Tuesday night and might be again Thursday night, when the Thunder tries to make this a series rather than a Dirk coronation.
Double-team Nowitzki and leave all those shooters even more open? Play him tougher and risk even more whistles, after he went 24-of-24 from the foul line?
Not much of an option there. The Thunder must fall back on one final tactic. Hope.
Hope Nowitzki isn't as good the rest of the series as he was Tuesday night, when Kevin Durant was fabulous but still overshadowed by the 7-foot uber-star.
“Defending without fouling,” grinning Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said of his grand adjustment.
But it's not crazy talk. Two things: 1. The big fellow's been good, no, great for a long time. Nobody in the league matches up with a skilled 7-footer who can shoot from 20 feet away. 2. If Nowitzki truly has become new and improved, the transformation came this week.
In advancing past Portland and the Lakers in these playoffs, Nowitzki was a total stud. But not unstoppable.
Against the Blazers, Nowitzki averaged 27.3 points but made just 45.2 percent of his shots. In the four-game sweep of the Lakers, Nowitzki averaged 25.3 points and though he shot 57.3 percent, LA didn't foul him. Big Dirk shot 16 foul shots total in the series.
How did Portland and the Lakers at least keep Nowitzki from warming up? Well, Gerald Wallace is a 6-foot-8 defensive demon in Portland. So that helps. And the Lakers went primarily with 7-foot Pau Gasol, even though they also had Lamar Odom and Ron Artest as options.
The Thunder's best option is Serge Ibaka, who blocks shots out of the sky unless they come from the 7-foot German he has to guard. Then just getting in the way consumes all of Ibaka's efforts.
Ibaka's plan for Thursday night is be aggressive from the start. If he fouls, he fouls. Ibaka's theory: he was hesitant early, Dirk got in a groove and by the time Ibaka got physical, Nowitzki was on fire and the whistles were happy.
“I thought we played him well,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. “He hit some contested shots.”
Amen. Ibaka's defense wasn't awful. Nowitzki wasn't standing around wide open. He hit a bunch of tough shots and made two dozen free throws. Keep making him shoot tough shots, cut those foul shots by two thirds, and Nowitzki is human again.
I know, easier said than done. And I have no grand suggestions for Brooks. No one else has any idea what to do with Nowitzki.
“I don't care what they do,” said Mav sharpshooter Jason Terry. “We know what to do with him. That's the key. Give him the rock. Feed him and fan him.”
The Thunder has lived this before. Last series. They gave up 34 points to Memphis' Zach Randolph in Game 1, and no one within 100 miles of Bricktown thought the Thunder could contain Randolph. But it did.
Truth is, Nowitzki's been doing this to the Thunder and most everyone else in the NBA for a long time. People who say this isn't the old Dirk have it all wrong. These aren't the old Mavs.
That's not Erick Dampier at center. Leave Tyson Chandler open, and an alley-oop dunk is guaranteed. Plus, Terry has some fellow long-range marksmen. Jason Kidd. Back-from-the-dead Peja Stojakovic. The ridiculous J.J. Barea.
You've got to guard those guys. You can't double-team Dirk. Not much, anyway.
“We haven't double-teamed anybody all year,” said the Thunder's Nick Collison. “If you double-team, there's a price to pay.”
So what to do? I don't know, and neither does Brooks.
“It's tough,” Collison said. “He really had it going. Do a better job, hope he misses some shots.”
There's that word. That's how you defend Nowitzki. It's really how you've always defended him. Pick a defensive strategy, play it well, play it hard and hope.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.