5-1-07 - With stubble on his cheeks and resignation in his voice, Dirk Nowitzki didn't look or sound anything like a dominant player determined to prevent one of the most embarrassing, stunning upsets in NBA history.
Maybe he was sapped by the long flight back from Oakland and film session that immediately followed. Or perhaps the listless appearance was just further proof of how much the Golden State Warriors have flustered Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks while winning three of the first four games in this first-round series.
Whatever the reason, the expected league MVP talked Monday about being ready to shrink from the spotlight even more than he already has in Game 5 Tuesday night.
"I got to take what they give me and they don't really give me a lot," said Nowitzki, who is averaging 20 points and has yet to score more than 23. "So I've got to make other stuff happen -- help out on defense more; hit the glass harder, as hard as I can, get some extra possessions; if I have a shot, try to knock it down and if I don't, move the ball and let someone else make a shot."
Nowitzki rarely boasts. Talk of "fitting in" is more typical than predicting a big game.
Yet would Michael Jordan talk about passing more when his shot wasn't falling? Did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar focus on rebounds when his sky hook was missing the mark? And how many titles did their I'm-going-to-score-no-matter-what attitudes produce?
The answer is enough to explain why coach Avery Johnson was angered by Nowitzki's comments, which are typical of his attitude throughout this series.
"I'm tired of hearing about how they've taken him out of his game and any lack of confidence. You're just not supposed to have that, all right," said Johnson, perhaps team's most intense player even though he's no longer playing.
"I wasn't the best of players and didn't have the best of skills, but you were not going to shake my confidence. We need all of our players to be confident, to be resilient, to be persistent and that's what I want to see tomorrow. If I don't see it at shootaround, I'm going to be highly upset ... because I need to have it going into that game tomorrow night. We've got to be confident and really sure about what we're doing."
And if he doesn't see it?
"We'll figure something out," Johnson said. "We'll figure something out."
Nowitzki proved he's capable of taking over a big game during last year's playoffs. After leading Dallas past San Antonio in a tense, second-round series, he pushed the Mavs past Phoenix in the conference finals by scoring 50 points in Game 5 of a tied series, then took over the second half of the next game, clinching a spot in the NBA finals.
The Mavericks wound up losing to the Miami Heat, but came back so focused this season that they won 67 games, among the most in league history -- and 25 more than the Warriors, who needed a 9-1 finish just to make the playoffs.
Dallas had winning streaks of 17, 13 and 12 games, so three in a row to win this series certainly isn't asking for much, except for one nagging detail: Golden State is 6-1 in the head-to-head series, including the game that ended the Mavericks' longest winning streak.
Only eight teams in NBA history have overcome 3-1 deficits. If Dallas can't become the ninth, the Mavs will be the third No. 1 seed knocked out by a No. 8 and the first since the opening round became a best-of-seven series.
"We have a great deal of respect for the Dallas Mavericks," said Warriors coach Don Nelson, who was a big part of building Dallas into a championship team over the last 10 years. "If any team can come back from this, it's them."
Phoenix pulled off the comeback from 3-1 down last year in the opening round against the Los Angeles Lakers. Detroit did it as a top seed in 2003.
"Dallas won't give up," Golden State's Jason Richardson said. "We still have work to do."
The Warriors aren't likely to roll over, either. They've been the aggressors in every game, with Baron Davis providing the skill and Stephen Jackson the toughness. The Mavericks' only win came in the game Davis and Jackson were ejected from.
Nowitzki was plenty passive in Game 4 Sunday night. He seemed reluctant to shoot at times, like when he gave up an open look from about 8 feet to pass to a covered teammate closer to the rim. Then in the closing minutes he shot an airball on a 3-point try.
"They really go smaller and really sit down on my legs, don't let me put the ball down on the floor the way I want to and get to my spots," Nowitzki said.
Teammate Jerry Stackhouse accused reporters of putting too much emphasis on Nowitzki.
"It's not on Dirk," he said. "You guys have made Dirk the save-all for us. We haven't. He's a part, a big part, of what we do. When teams do something to take away a big part of you, the onus is on everyone else to step up."
Despite a reputation for playing little defense, the Warriors have yet to allow anyone to score 30 points, while getting at least that many from one of their players every game.
"As long as we believe in ourselves," Davis said, "we will be all right."