LOS ANGELES (AP)—Kobe Bryant(notes) and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) were born just two months apart in 1978, and they’ve both been NBA superstars for over a decade. They’ve won one league MVP award apiece, and Bryant has only a slight edge in career scoring averages and All-Star appearances.
Nobody would ever compare Nowitzki with Bryant in the metrics that matter most, however. In championships, in big-game performances, Dirk just isn’t in Kobe’s league.
Yet after Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks thoroughly outplayed Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch of their 96-94 comeback victory in their second-round series opener, Nowitzki’s teammates think this might be the season their German 7-footer erases their mutual postseason reputation—although he’ll have to damage Bryant’s invincible aura to do it.
“He always wants the ball down the stretch, and he always finds a way to get it done,” said Dallas guard Jason Kidd(notes), whose veteran defensive savvy also caused problems for Bryant. “He likes that stage. You don’t find a lot of guys who like that stage. Kobe is one of them, but (Nowitzki) has done a lot of work to get there with him. He and Kobe are the two best players on the floor, and he found a way to get it done last night.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Although Bryant is widely perceived to be the NBA’s best late-game scorer after a 15-year career filled with clutch play, some statistics show Dirk is a better closer than Kobe, including Nowitzki’s superior shooting percentage on last-minute shots in tight games. Bryant has missed crucial shots in several buzzer-beating situations over the past few postseasons, including his miss off the back rim to end Game 1.
Nowitzki scored 11 points in the fourth quarter Monday night during the Mavericks’ first-ever playoff win in Los Angeles, including four in the final 40 seconds. With Staples Center collectively screaming in his ear with 19.5 seconds to play, Nowitzki coolly made two free throws to give Dallas its first lead of the second half.
“I’ve basically seen it all in this league,” Nowitzki said after the Mavericks’ workout at the Los Angeles Clippers’ training complex. “It’s my 13th year. I’ve got to be ready for anything. I can adjust to just about anything, and the good thing is we’ve got a lot of shooters on this team. We can do a lot of things.”
Bryant scored 21 of his 36 points in the second half, but he couldn’t close out the Mavs. His bad pass was stolen by Jason Terry(notes) with 20 seconds left, and he fumbled a handoff from Pau Gasol(notes) with 4 seconds to play before missing that catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
Nowitzki was the cooler playoff customer, while Bryant made crucial mistakes to cap the Lakers’ collapse. No wonder Staples Center fans appeared more confused than angry after their team blew a 16-point lead to lose their second straight series opener.
“I’m not clutch,” Bryant deadpanned after sitting out another practice at the Lakers’ training complex.
Nowitzki and Bryant have struck up a friendship during times together at All-Star games or the Olympics, but Bryant doesn’t feel a personal rivalry with Nowitzki. After all, they had never met in the playoffs before Game 1.
“It’s different, because it’s not a personal challenge for me to try to stop him or make things difficult for him,” Bryant said. “It’s a little different in that regard.”
Their career postseason scoring averages are nearly identical, around 25.5 points apiece, and they’re both among the highest in NBA history. But Bryant has scored at least 30 points in 81 playoff games, more than anybody except Michael Jordan, and his steady brilliance has pushed the Lakers to seven NBA finals, including the past three.
Nowitzki’s offensive talents are unique among 7-footers, but he still hasn’t led the Mavericks to the franchise’s first title during a decade of playoff appearances.
He got close in 2006, but Nowitzki shot poorly while the Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead over the Miami Heat to lose the NBA finals. A year later, Dallas was knocked out of the first round by eighth-seeded Golden State, and Nowitzki went 2 for 13 in the Warriors’ clinching victory after a horrific series effort, forcing him into the bittersweet spectacle of accepting his only NBA MVP award after the Mavericks had been eliminated.
Dallas had won just one round in the previous four postseasons combined, even with Nowitzki averaging more than 26 points per game over the past three years, before knocking off Portland in the first round this spring. The Trail Blazers set the stage for a typical Mavs collapse by coming back from a 23-point deficit in Game 4 to even the series—but Dallas responded with two impressive closeout wins.
“We’re mentally tougher than we have been,” Nowitzki said. “It showed after the meltdown in Portland, coming back and winning two games when everybody said we were dead. We’re a lot of veteran guys who have been around a lot in this league.”
After Nowitzki’s 28-point, 14-rebound performance in Game 1, the Lakers claimed they aren’t planning a new defensive approach. Gasol, Lamar Odom(notes) and Ron Artest(notes) will share defensive duties, but Los Angeles realizes it must improve its rotation to prevent Nowitzki’s teammates from spreading the floor for open shots.
The Lakers appeared thoroughly unperturbed by their third loss in seven postseason games this spring, even after blowing a 16-point lead. Unlike the Mavs, they have a large memory bank filled with postseason resilience to draw upon when things go wrong.
“We’re playing against one of the best teams in the NBA, and there’s no anticipation of being able to get up to a certain level and be able to maintain a lead,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) said. “We’ve accepted the fact that it won’t be perfect. We’re going to lose games.”