Nowitzki's career is on the clock

Dirk Nowitzki was outscored by Maurice Ager. Dirk Nowitzki didn't attempt a shot from closer than 13 feet. Dirk Nowitzki got dunked on by Matt Barnes. Dirk Nowitzki finished with more turnovers than field goals. Dirk Nowitzki's 67-win team got bounced in a deciding game by 25 points … by a No. 8 seed.

And you know what? It still wasn't the worst performance by a good player in a deciding game.

That dubious honor belongs to Dennis Johnson, who dropped an 0-for-14 stink bomb in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals. One year later, Seattle won the title and DJ won the Finals MVP. His career turned out fine. So for anyone playing the "Nowitzki's career will never be the same" card, throw some water on yourself. In the last 30 years, only two NBA players had their careers sidetracked by a bad game -- Nick Anderson and John Starks -- which shouldn't happen to Nowitzki because he's a much better player. At the same time, it's hard to remember an elite player taking such an enormous step backward for no real reason. Not even 11 months ago, with his team trailing by three in the final 20 seconds of a Game 7 in San Antonio, this was the same guy who bullied his way past Bruce Bowen toward the rim, got hacked by Manu Ginobili while he was challenging Tim Duncan, forced the ball in and made the free throw for the tying points. Two weeks later, I declared that Dirk was "playing at a higher level than any forward since Bird." And it was true.

Well, what happened to him???? Where did he go? Game 6 wasn't an aberration because Nowitzki looked like a mess for two weeks. The problems first surfaced in mid-March, when Phoenix and Dallas played on the night before March Madness started. Although the game was billed as a battle between the two top MVP candidates, Steve Nash emerged as the dominant player, notching 32 points, 16 assists, 8 rebounds and nearly every clutch play in a double-OT victory. Watching the game with two buddies, we agreed that it was a seminal moment of the 2007 season -- Nash just wanted it more than Nowitzki did. You could see it. I still remember my buddy House hissing, "So much for the MVP race."

Neither the Mavericks nor Nowitzki has been the same since. Looking back, everything about the Mavs' season was a little misleading. Yeah, they were a 67-win team, but not in the conventional sense -- they stayed healthy (unlike nearly everyone else), played in fifth gear every game and benefited from a particularly crummy league more than anything else. Nowitzki emerged as the leading MVP candidate not because people were watching Dallas games and thinking, "Wow, that guy's GREAT," but because he was the best guy on the best team and they couldn't think of anyone else.

Then, a surging Golden State team exposed every chink in Dallas' armor: You could go small against them because they didn't have a low-post scorer; you could attack Nowitzki defensively; you could make them settle for jumpers and 3s; you could get their offense to break down because they didn't have enough slashers; and most important, you could bully them with the right players. You know what the underrated subplot of this series was? With the exception of Jerry Stackhouse, the Mavericks were afraid of the Warriors. For instance, I don't think Nowitzki wanted any part of Stephen Jackson -- didn't want to post him up, bang bodies with him, trash-talk him or anything of the sort -- and even worse, I think Jackson knew it. Just reading the body language of the Warriors in that series, every moment they seemed to be thinking, "We got these guys, they're afraid of us, they can't stop us." And they played accordingly.

(The most telling moment: When Austin Croshere hammered Baron Davis and Davis sprung up in his face last night. All four of Davis' teammates rallied to his defense; only one Dallas teammate rallied to Croshere's defense. That was the series in a nutshell. There was a playground edge to the Warriors that the Mavericks simply didn't have; it was like watching a prep-school team from Connecticut getting worked over by the kids from Lincoln High.)

As for Nowitzki, he's turning into this generation's Karl Malone, a fantastic NBA forward and future Hall of Famer … and someone who might be missing that extra something when it matters. Malone was blessed with John Stockton, a clutch player who learned how to make up for Malone's crunch-time deficiencies by taking over at the end of games. Nowitzki doesn't have anyone like that, although he played with someone who turned into such a player (Nash) after he was discarded by the Mavs so they could spend $70 million on Erick Dampier. And that's the real problem here: Dallas' arrogant belief that it didn't need Nash to win a championship, or that it didn't need to do anything last February when it had the young player (Devin Harris) and the expiring contracts to acquire one more playoff-proven star like Ray Allen or Jason Kidd. For those two mistakes alone, the Mavericks deserved the ignominy of being on the wrong side of the biggest NBA upset ever.

Still, I'm not willing to write off Dirk Nowitzki as a Pantheon player. He's only 28. He's shown flashes of brilliance in the past. He's been under the spotlight lately because he doesn't seem like the stereotypical no-brainer MVP choice -- as I covered on Tuesday -- not because he's overrated or anything. Maybe he needs to spend the next few months answering "What happened to you?" questions to be properly toughened up down the road, like how years of public doubt toughened Peyton Manning in the end. Hey, if Dennis Johnson can bounce back from 0-for-14 and win the Finals MVP 12 months later against the same team, anything's possible.

Some other lingering thoughts heading into one of the greatest sports weekends ever:

• Kudos to the Warriors' game entertainment people (for basically turning the music off for the entire game and letting the crowd carry things) and TNT (for sending Marv Albert and Steve Kerr to Game 6). You couldn't ask for better announcers or a better crowd. When's the last time we had a "Na na na na … HEY HEY HEY … goodbye!" chant at an NBA game? When's the last time an NBA crowd stood for the entire second half? I'm still giddy.

• When Davis injured his leg Thursday night, I was sitting there thinking, "Great, great, what a fitting way for this to end -- the one star player who always gets hurt ends up getting hurt at the worst possible time" and kicking myself for not seeing it coming. Then he pulled a pseudo-Willis Reed on us. Just an amazing performance. Also, Steve Kerr did a nice job of bringing up Davis' career 3-point stats (32 percent for his career, 30 percent this season, 46 percent in the Dallas series) to spell out exactly how on fire Davis was.

• Don Nelson's best move of the series was starting Matt Barnes in Game 6, going with his best five (Davis, Jackson, Barnes, Richardson and the Biedrins/Pietrus combo) and burying Monta Ellis and Small Al Harrington. You rarely see coaches admit the obvious and say, "I'm not screwing around anymore, we're living or dying with these guys and everyone else can cheer from the bench." Love that.

(Note: I received a slew of e-mails wondering where Golden State's win ranked on the Vengeance Scale considering all the bad blood between Nelson and Mark Cuban. You know what? It's a solid 9.7. Cuban was a rifle and a bathroom away from turning into Private Pyle last night.)

• Warrants mentioning that the Celtics investigated trading for Baron Davis two Februarys ago, blanched at his injury problems and uninsured contract and acquired Antoine Walker instead. I actually agreed with this decision then and still do -- the risk was too great and they had already been burned with the LaFrentz/Baker contracts in the previous four years. But look at the way the Warriors were built: They took fliers on two quality players who were available for major discounts (Jackson and Davis), signed a journeyman free agent who anyone could have had (Barnes), drafted fairly well (Pietrus and Biedrins as late lottery picks, Richardson as a top-5 pick, Ellis as a second-rounder) and made a "Godfather" offer to a retired coach (Nelson). Pretty simple game plan.

Here's the thing: They took a few chances. I didn't agree with half of them, but at least they were rolling the dice. This past February at the deadline, did one team take a chance with a big move? Of course not. Everyone thought they were good to go. Ridiculous. This league drives me crazy. I can't take it.

That reminds me, with everyone weighing in on the "Where are the Lakers going from here?" debate, it has to be mentioned that their overall game plan never, ever, EVER made sense. Why waste two years of Kobe's prime by trying to develop young players like Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown over targeting gamers (dealing Caron Butler never made sense) and using expiring contracts to acquire playoff-proven guys (for instance, they could have had Kidd if they included Bynum in the deal). How could they allow all those contracts (over $10 million worth of expiring deals) to simply expire without taking a flier on someone like Stephen Jackson? And why aren't Lakers fans more furious that their team willingly threw away Kobe's prime like this? I don't get it.

• From Michael in Spokane: "If jail existed for sports bigamy, Snoop Dogg would be doing 25 to life."

• From TP in Philly: "Sarunas Jasikevicius is the best Jack Haley since … I guess Jack Haley. I find myself looking forward to breaks in the action if only to see that crazy Lithuanian jumping around like a little kid."

• I keep getting e-mails from Bulls fans wondering why (A) I haven't written about their monumental sweep of a Miami team that could have doubled as the cast for "Cocoon 3," (B) I haven't admitted that I was wrong about Chicago declining to trade for Pau Gasol last February and (C) I haven't recanted my running argument that Chicago should have kept Tyson Chandler and not signed Ben Wallace. First of all, I picked the Bulls in five; it's not like the Miami sweep was shocking. Miami was a complete mess. Second, I still think they should have traded for Gasol, although it's clear that Luol Deng is untouchable at this point -- I'll admit it, I definitely underestimated his talents -- but still, they couldn't have gotten Memphis to bite for Thabo Sefolosha, Tyrus Thomas, expiring contracts and the Knicks' pick? And third, I still don't believe they can beat the Pistons without any low-post scoring. You're not beating the Pistons with jumpers. You're just not. That's why I'm picking the Pistons in six. So if that happens, and you think it was a good move to spend $64 million on Wallace for a second-round exit that would have happened, anyway, I don't know what to tell you.

• Three more predictions: Jersey handily thumping Toronto Friday night, Mayweather taking a decision from De La Hoya, and Utah shocking Houston in Game 7. By the way, are we really prepared to live in a basketball world where Nowitzki is the reigning MVP and Sam Mitchell (badly exposed in the Nets series) is the "Coach of the Year"?

• There isn't a happier team than the Spurs right now. Not only are they peaking at the perfect time, but Dallas was the one contender that matched up perfectly against them. Now they get the Suns (as much as I love watching the Suns, the Spurs are a terrible matchup for them), then the winner of Houston/Utah-Golden State, then whatever flawed team comes out of the East. Are you kidding me? During Thursday night's game, TNT should have had cameras at Tim Duncan's house, like how CBS has cameras at various colleges during the NCAA Tournament selection show. We needed to see the Spurs celebrating and pouring champagne on one another. Might as well start early. For all intents and purposes, you can put a fork in the 2007 NBA playoffs.

• A few links and then we're done …

1. Matt from Naperville, Ill.: "My friend Josh convinced me to send you these videos I made from school with my two roommates. The first one became a bit of an underground sensation, which led us to make the second a few months later. However, one of my roommates said he was too busy with finals to take part in the video. Needless to say, I had to take matters into my own hands and get him into the video, one way or another. The best part is, people keep asking us if he's dead, and if he's really 35. The age thing is a bit of an inside joke, but basically I just give him a bunch of crap for being 27, when he could probably pass for 20. Anyways, I hope you enjoy."

Note to Matt: I did. These clips killed me. In the late '80s, my buddy Bish and I dunked on a 9-foot rim for two hours with a video camera filming, then spliced it into a dunk video with a Michael McDonald song in the background. (Yes, all copies have been destroyed. As far as you know.) But a nerf hoop? Genius.

2. If you're wondering what it's like to be Stephen Jackson, check out Part One and Part Two of a feature some radio station filmed about him before the 2007 season. Sadly, they didn't follow him around on the night he headed to a strip joint with Jamaal Tinsley.

3. From two weeks ago: I really enjoyed Dan Le Batard's "20 Questions" interview with Shaq. And while we're here, I also enjoyed Michael Lewis' Jock Exchange, Robert Kolker's NY Mag piece on the NYC subway hero, Sam Smith's piece about a distraught Larry Legend, and Scott Ostler's column about Stephen Jackson.

4. The runaway contender for the "most disturbing eBay auction item of the year" so far.

5. The greatest NBA shot ever finally makes YouTube: Jeff Malone's running heave in 1984. Seriously, I want to see an All-Star Skills competition where NBA players attempt to make this shot. Would you rather watch that or Michael Cooper trying to make half-court shots as Lisa Leslie stands next to him?

6. The Philly fans want you to know that they're extremely, extremely depressed right now.

7. Finally, a link to my favorite moment of the 2007 season so far: Matt Barnes' dunk on Dirk that capped an 18-point run and nearly blew the roof off in Oakland … and if that wasn't enough, Marv Albert sounded more excited than he's been since the '91 Finals and even dusted off the term "facial." You couldn't have scripted this any better. I'm still fired up.

Enjoy the weekend.