Sunday Donuts: What Mavs Need From Dirk

Two major themes dominate the Donuts today: 1) What, exactly, do the Mavs need from Nowitzki as he returns from his 'Dirk-Out Workout'? 2) What, exactly do the Mavs need to do to beat the hated Spurs? The themes are obvious. The answers? They run a little deeper ...

DONUT 1: Before we dig into the Spurs, let's handle the Dallas Mavericks and their top story. They expect Dirk Nowitzki to return at home today against the Spurs after a scheduled four-game absence during his "Dirk-Out Workout.''

It'll be eventful. Will it be helpful? What needs to happen for it to be so?

It's well-documented that Nowitzki was forced to put himself through an eight-day training camp after not being where he needed to be physically to carry the load in the way the Mavericks expect of him. It's simplistic to say Nowitzki was "out of shape''; that's a relative thing and Dirk bristled a bit when coach Rick Carlisle characterized him that way.

But no matter the label, Mavs observers knew what they were seeing as Dirk labored through the first part of the season. Nowitzki isn't at his best when he's hanging around the perimeter and waiting for open shots. The Mavs' championship season was highlighted in part by Dirk serving as a player with the confidence in his jumper, the skill to take defenders off the dribble and the command to be the offensive facilitator for the Mavs.

Nowitzki needs to be more than just "in shape" for all of that; he needs to be at an elite level of game fitness, from his knee to his head and everything in between.

It became clear over the first month of the season that Nowitzki wasn't capable of doing that with because of last season's lengthy playoff run, extra time spent playing for Germany's national team, bothersome knee, and the shortened preseason all combining to stunt his preparation.

So the Mavs made the decision shut him down.

"We were always shooting for Sunday,'' Nowitzki said. "That's where my head is, hopefully Sunday, and we'll go from there."
DONUT 2: Now The UberMan is anticipated to be back and the Mavericks will need to begin running their offense through him again despite their 3-1 record in the four games without him.

During a nine-game absence last season, the Mavericks were a deflating 2-7 without their superstar, making it a simple transition to bringing Nowitzki back due to the "It-can't–get-any-worse" aura surrounding the team at the time. This time around, the Mavs actually realized some team success and even development over the Nowitzki-less stretch. So it's up to Nowitzki to somehow marry the personal progress he's made with the 12-8 team's positive momentum.

Today -- a 5:30 atart at the AAC -- would be an opportune time, as Dallas is tied with the Spurs for the Southwest Division lead.

There are a few things that will be needed to be seen from Nowitzki to know that he is fully back to being himself and for the staff to trust they can begin building the offense around him again.

Our thoughts ...

DONUT 3: Find His Most Lethal Weapon: The consistency in Nowitzki's legendary jump shot needs to return. Almost all of Dirk's attack comes from defenses game-planning against his perimeter shot. It's become less and less a part of his game over the years, but Dirk's three-point shooting to start this season was bordering on non-existent as he was making only 24-percent of his long-rangers.

It's obvious that Nowitzki's ability to shoot three-pointers didn't disappear overnight as he's a career 38-percent shooter from beyond the arc, so the natural progression is to wonder if his painful knee is causing him to do something different with his lower body to throw his shot off.

Every good shooter derives so much of their shot from their legs and Dirk just wasn't able to do that. He needs to continue to strike fear into defenses with his shot. If he can't, he's not Dirk.

DONUT 4: Next-Level Form: Nowitzki needs to prove, to himself amongst others, that his knee and fitness are at a level that consistently allows him to make all of his basketball plays. Most importantly, that includes the ability to take the ball to the basket to score or facilitate when defenders close out on his shot.

When Nowitzki was playing this season, his feet almost appeared to be stuck in sand when making moves to the basket after showing his shot or pump faking. One of the most important results of the "Dirk-Out Workout'' is that he shows the explosion necessary to beat the man in front of him. Making the right play or decision wasn't the problem before Dirk's break; his problem was getting to the point where he could make that decision.

"We lifted a lot, ran some, shot some,'' said Nowitzki of the specifics of the "Dirk-Out Workout,'' specifics designed to recapture that explosion. "I think it was definitely a good week for me to work on some stuff that I wasn't able to work on when I had some trouble with my knee. So it was definitely good.''

DONUT 5: Involve Odom: Dirk needs to begin to play a role that aides fellow forward Lamar Odom in finding his way next to him in the lineup, so the Mavs can work with as many player combinations as they can.

Dirk is such an unconventional player, sometimes guys find it just as difficult to find a niche next to him as they do defending him. Odom is the new guy, so it's on Dirk to help him find a way to flourish within the offense that will become more and more Nowitzki-focused as the season progresses.

Odom finally had a breakout game of sorts on Friday in a 116-101 home win over Utah. With Dirk watching, Odom scored a season-high 19 points working as Nowitzki's replacement at power forward.

The Mavs believe the trio of Dirk, Odom and Shawn Marion (the Mavs' best performer this year) makes up the best combination of forwards in the league – but that's only on paper. It needs to get done on the floor.

DONUT 6: Offensive Stability: When the Mavericks offense is operating at a high level and moving the ball like it should with Nowitzki as the centerpiece, it's a thing of beauty. "Flow,'' is what the Mavs call that part of their offensive system.

With Nowitzki unprepared to play his normal role within the offense, the Mavericks were a scoring sloth at only 92.4 points per game through the first 16 outings. Granted, scoring is down across the league in general, but the Mavs were able to improve their scoring to 95.5 in games without Nowitzki.

Some may consider creative scoring despite the absence of a superstar a positive sign, but the Nowitzki-less offense certainly isn't the model for ultimate success. Upon his return, Dirk – averaging just 17 points per game -- needs to be the main building block for a sustainable, championship-caliber offense.

DONUT 7: Get to the Line: In every year except one since the 2000-01 season, Dirk has averaged at least 6.1 free throws per game. Admittedly, this is a gift that will certainly diminish in productivity as a player gets longer in the tooth, but Dirk's current rate of 4.6 trips to the line per game just doesn't add up.

The hub of Nowitzki's game has always been efficiency. Getting to the line is how he produces legendary efforts like Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder when he had 48 points on just 15 shots.

Nowitzki getting to the line does so much for his team -- whether it's forcing defenses to adjust to the Mavs' pace, getting opposing defenders in foul trouble, or flat-out getting the easy points the Mavs expect from him.

DONUT 8: Be the MVP: When he is operating at his normal elite level, Dirk Nowitzki is the Dallas Mavericks' best offensive player … even when he isn't scoring, simply due to his sheer presence. The extra attention and double-teams Nowitzki consistently faces allows his improved passing to be the main reason Dallas' offense has a flow to it that most opposing coaches have dreams about running and nightmares about defending.

After a rocky start, the Mavericks are more than a quarter into a solid season so far based on their expectations.

With Nowitzki, they are capable of moving beyond "solid.''

"All we have to do,'' Dirk said, "is keep working and hopefully keep everyone healthy and be there when it counts and in the playoffs.''

That's the talk of the champion. Sometime soon, Dallas is hoping to benefit from the production of one.

DONUT 9: And how to arrive there? Well, being able to beat the Spurs at home in a Southwest Division showdown would help ... Starting off ...

Spurs at Dallas Mavericks, 530 pm at AAC

SPURS 12-8 MAVS 12-8

F- Richard Jefferson F- Shawn Marion

F- Tim Duncan F- Dirk Nowitzki

C- DeJuan Blair C- Brendan Haywood

G- Kawahi Leonard G- Roddy Beaubois

G- Tony Parker G- Delonte West

DONUT 10: The Spurs on offense ...

• Parker will trigger much of the offense. They still like a lot of DRAG (hi pick) in early offense. Will use Duncan, who can pop for mid-range and Blair/Splitter who will primarily roll to hoop.

• Spurs attempt more 3-pointers from the corner than any team in the league. (Remember that in the previous meeting, SA made 11 of their 16 in the first half to get a 93-71 win.) They will run strong and weak side action to get shooters open in corner. Also use the baseline picks for shooters. Special Situations (BLOBS/SLOBS) they will ALWAYS have a corner three as an option. Jefferson must be made to dribble from that corner, or else ...

• One of their favorite set is a basic wing entry, then a guard/post cross screen on the block (Motion). Then a forward will down screen the screener (guard) who will cut to FT line area for jumper.

• They are still a VERY effective offensive team when they move and share the ball.

DONUT 11: The Spurs on defense ...

• Bigs do not run floor well in defensive transition. Dallas' bigs need to get up the court and be part of the break ...

• Can be beat off the dribble on the perimeter. Beaubois (expected to start in place of Kidd, doubtful with a calf injury) can take advantage.

• Will go over hi picks, especially if the screener is more of a popper than roller. Sometime will trap the hi picks.

• Will play behind post defensively when they do not perceive a scoring threat.

• They do not gamble a lot on defense. They show good fundamentals. Will make you work for good shots in the half court.

DONUT 12: Spurs Stat Check ...

• Spurs are5th in scoring at 98.5/gm.

• Spurs are 5th in FG% at .466

• Spurs are 6th in 3pt FG% at .378

• Spurs are 2nd in Assist Per Game at 23.2.

• Spurs are 2-7 on the ROAD and 10-1 at HOME.
DONUT 13: How to Beat the Spurs ...

• RUN - Push the ball and beat them back. They are much easier to score on in transition than in the half-court.

• CLOSE OUTS – Close out long on shooters, i.e. make them put the ball on the floor and funnel them to post.

• ATTACK – Do not be passive on either end of them floor. "Punch them in the mouth" first as opposed to what happened in the previous meeting.

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