As great as Dirk Nowitzki frequently has been, perhaps he was never better than in the 2011 Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, averaging 32.2 points to lead the Dallas Mavericks to a 4-1 series victory. The All-Star power forward shot 55.7 percent from the field, 36.4 percent from 3-point range and 96.7 percent from the free-throw line against OKC.
Game One was calculated as the most efficient shooting performance in NBA playoff history as Nowitzki erupted for 48 points while shooting 12 for 15 from the field and 24 for 24 from the line. He also added six rebounds, four blocks and four assists.
Part of Nowitzki’s shooting exhibition included his signature move, a step-back jumper off the wrong (right) foot, a shot that looks all wrong until the ball splashes through the net with uncanny frequency. As if the 7-foot, 245-pound Nowitzki already wasn’t lethal enough offensively, “The Dirk” step-back move appears to be both unblockable and unstoppable.
Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant constantly tries to improve his game, which is why it was no surprise he started attempting step-back jumpers off one foot the following season. “Imitation is the best form off flattery, I guess,” said a smiling Durant. “I wanted to learn it because I’m 6-(foot)-9 and Dirk uses it so much on us in the playoffs and the regular season. I’m like, ‘Man, if he can master his shot, I’m going to try to do the same thing.’ ”
Trouble was, Durant’s shot often ended with a clang rather than a splash. “As in anything, you can’t walk before you crawl,” Durant said. “Everything is going to take some time.” What did OKC coach Scott Brooks think of Durant adding the shot to his repertoire? “I thought, ‘Why (attempt it)? You were making your normal shot at a nice clip,’ ” Brooks said.
Given his frigid success rate, Durant essentially ditched “The Dirk” last season during games, but continued to practice. The shot has been extremely effective this season, leaving Durant defenders feeling even more helpless than ever In a 117-114 overtime victory over the Mavericks at American Airlines Center on Friday night, Durant poured in a career-high 52 points, sinking 21 of 21 free throws and going 5 for 9 on 3-pointers. He did misfire from the floor at 13 for 31, but a key late basket came on a step-back jumper.
Durant’s version of the step-back is not nearly as diverse as Nowitzki’s. Durant jumps off the correct (left) foot and rarely off the wrong foot. Nowitzki can drain the shot from any spot at any time, while Durant’s range is limited to certain hot spots. “I’ve got a long, long ways to go,” Durant said. “I can’t shoot it at every angle of the court like Dirk can, or off the dribble, or off the right leg. I shoot it mainly off my left leg. I can’t shoot it off the opposite (foot). The way he makes it look effortless, man, hopefully I’ll get there.”
Thunder reserve forward Nick Collison has called Nowitzki the most difficult player he’s had to defend, and Durant quickly has become the same to OKC opponents. “He (Durant) is learning how to take advantage of his size, but he also posts up at the free throw line, at the nail, and that’s what Dirk’s really been good at,” Collison said. “Kevin is figuring out how to use his size against smaller players, and that’s what Dirk’s always done, too. Dirk’s been a tough matchup for years.”
Nowitzki hasn’t shown much of his step-back this season after missing 27 games due to arthroscopic surgery on his right knee – the same knee he plants when jumping off the wrong foot. In Friday night’s overtime loss, Nowitzki missed his first seven shots, 10 of his first 11 and finished 5 for 19 with 18 points.
Brooks frequently praises Durant for always trying to add his game, and the step-back move certainly has done that. “I wasn’t thrilled because he wasn’t making it earlier,” Brooks said. “Now he’s making that shot. He has a shot that’s hard to defend when he doesn’t do that, but that takes it to another level. He has such a high release and he has long arms. That little fade-away step-back, now that he’s making it, I like it. I’m in favor of it.”
What will Durant add next? The sky hook perhaps? “Man, you talk about a tough shot,” Durant said with a smile. “We’ll see. I’m going to try anything I can to get my game better, add different parts to my arsenal, so we’ll see.”
- John Rohde