Defending Nowitzki takes collective effort

Marc J. Spears
Dirk Nowitzki (right) walks off the court after the Mavs' Finals loss to the Heat in 2006. The Heat insist that Nowitzki is a more dangerous player today

MIAMI – How do you defend Dirk Nowitzki(notes)?

First, you must force him to his right. Once he starts his dribble from the perimeter, it's also best to bring a double-team in hopes of making him pass. Oh, and don't allow him to use his signature step-back to his left … or his spin move to the right … or his post-up deep on the baseline.

In other words: Good luck.

As one Western Conference scout said: There are several principles to use when defending Nowitzki. That doesn't mean they'll work against the Dallas Mavericks' 7-foot scoring machine.

“There isn’t a magic pill or formula to stopping an MVP like that,” said Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “He’s a great player for a reason. He can score in so many different ways and he’s 7 feet. We will have several guys guard him by necessity and because that’s who we are. We change shots and make things difficult. And great players require that.”

The Heat have had mild success guarding Nowitzki this season, but they didn't win either game. Nowitzki scored 26 points on 8-of-21 shooting (0-of-4 from 3-point range) while making all 10 free throws with zero turnovers and two assists during a 98-96 victory in Miami on Dec. 20. He also had 22 points on 9-of-23 shooting (1-of-5 from 3-point range) while making all three free throws with four assists and two turnovers during a victory over the Heat on Nov. 27.

Heat forward Chris Bosh(notes) was the main player guarding Nowitzki in both games and is expected to start on him during Game 1 of the Finals on Tuesday.

“He’s one of the toughest [to guard] because he can use his body so well and shoot so well,” Bosh said. “He’s just so crafty. People look at him and say, ‘Ah, he’s not really that quick.’ He’s used to that pace and he really wears guys down by really testing their determination on defense. You really have to be disciplined to stay down and contest every shot he shoots.”

Heat forward Udonis Haslem(notes) missed both regular-season games against the Mavs. Haslem started all six games against Nowitzki during the 2006 Finals. Nowitzki averaged 26.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field during the 2005-06 season. But during the Finals, he averaged 22.8 points on 39 percent shooting while making just 25 percent of his 3-point attempts. Miami won the series in six games.

But that was five years ago.

“He’s so much more advanced than he was [in] '06,” Haslem said. “I don’t think anything from ’06 comes to play in this series. If anything, the ’06 series has made Dirk a better player. It’s obvious now.

“People tried some of the same things we used in that series and he’s torched them. His post game has come along a lot since then. You can’t really be as physical with him. He’s taking on the contact. A lot of those tactics we used in ’06, we can’t use them now.”

While the Heat will likely turn to Bosh and Haslem to guard Nowitzki, one scout believes LeBron James(notes) might be the best overall defender to use. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound James said he has limited experience guarding Nowitzki, but he’s open to the challenge.

James showed his versatility in the Eastern Conference finals when he guarded Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose(notes). The difference is Nowitzki is 4 inches taller than James, who also played some power forward this season when Bosh and Haslem were both out to injury.

“He’s 7 foot. He’s going to get a shot on anybody in here no matter how tall, how fast, how quick you are,” James said of Nowitzki. “He can get a shot any time you want it. But you just have to try to make it tough on him and wear him out throughout the game.

“I guarded him in the past. But this is different stakes.”

The Heat can also get some insight from center Erick Dampier(notes), who played with Nowitzki from 2004-10 in Dallas, including in the 2006 Finals.

Dampier's big suggestion: Force the rest of the Mavericks to beat you instead of Nowitzki.

“He’s just a complete player,” Dampier said. “He does whatever he can for his team to win. Obviously, we’ve watched film of him, studied his game. Me playing with him the last six years, I know what he’s going to do and what he doesn’t like doing. We just got to crowd him, make it hard for him."