For Dirk Nowitzki, finishing games has come secondary to Mavs’ young core getting crunch-time minutes

DALLAS — Although he admits that not being out on the court during crunch time for the Dallas Mavericks is something he’s yet to get accustom to, 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki has willingly sacrificed his playing time late in games to allow the team to develop its young contributors.

This season, Nowitzki is averaging just 12.2 points per game, which is his lowest total since his rookie year during the 1998-99 campaign. He’s also shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from beyond the three-point line. However, with his fourth-quarter playing time limited to allow the Mavericks’ young contributors to gain experience, Nowitzki has been rendered to being the team’s lead cheerleader late in games. And while he admits that it’s been an adjustment, the 20-year veteran says he’s taken on a different role to help the franchise move forward in seasons to come.

“You know, it’s different. I mean, the new timeout rule hurts it a little bit, ’cause you used to have a million timeouts down the stretch, and you could just score one and get out. If they scored, then get out or get in. It’s just not happening anymore. It’s a little more free-flowing. You don’t have as many timeouts down the stretch, and it’s usually better for us to have a defensive lineup out there with Dwight (Powell) or Maxi (Kleber) some,” Nowitzki explained. “Usually teams all go small nowadays, especially down the stretch, and there’s five shooters out there, a lot of pick-and-rolls, and we feel like we need a little more mobile guy out there. And at times where there is a timeout, I’ll come back in and maybe spread the floor to help the guys score. But I’ve just been supporting the guys and trying to help them get the job done to get some wins.

“I mean, we’re losing, so most of the time it’s obviously hard to watch. I wish we’d be winning more, but we haven’t been great down the stretch. We’ve got to find ways to get the big stops. … And of course, it’s tough.”

This season, the 39-year-old Nowitzki is averaging 6.0 minutes in the fourth quarter, scoring 3.2 points per outing in the period on 49.1 percent shooting from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range. According to NBA.com, that’s drastically down from the Mavericks’ 2010-11 title season when Nowitzki averaged 6.4 points on 49.8 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from three in 9.3 minutes per outing during the fourth quarter. That trend is likely to continue, coach Rick Carlisle admits, as the Mavericks (15-30) try to develop their young core. However, Carlisle also adds that Nowitzki could see additional time in the fourth period if the Mavs’ young contributors continue to struggle closing games.

“Well, you know, he can be (out there). A lot of it depends on situational matchups. You know, in our present situation, in many ways I feel it’s important for our young guys to experience these kinds of situations and go through it,” Carlisle confessed. “I’m very careful about extending his minutes, playing him crazy amounts of minutes in games where we quite frankly have to look at our overall picture and have to look at developing these young guys. Now, if the young guys just aren’t playing well, there’s going to be other guys in there. … But those guys need to go through it, learn and get better.”

Note: The Mavericks will now travel to Portland for Saturday’s matchup against the Trail Blazers. The game will tip off at 9 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270.

The Mavs return to American Airlines Center on Jan. 22 against the Washington Wizards. Dallas leads the season series 1-0 after a 113-99 road win on Nov. 7. The game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting Mavs.com, or by calling (214) 747-MAVS.

Injury updates:

J.J. Barea (left groin strain) — out
Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis) — out
Seth Curry (stress reaction, left tibia) — out
Nerlens Noel (left thumb surgery) — out

Game 45: Mavs at Nuggets

Game 44: Mavs vs. Lakers

Harrison Barnes beginning to relish role as Mavs’ go-to closer down stretch

DALLAS — Putting the Dallas Mavericks on his back Wednesday night and lifting them to a hard-fought 115-111 victory in Charlotte, versatile forward Harrison Barnes continued to show he’s able and more than willing to carry the team down the stretch of games.

Scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter, including a stretch of nine straight Dallas points at one point, Barnes finished a 9-of-13 shooting night with 25 points and 11 rebounds. He also lifted the Mavericks (15-28) to a second straight win to complete a difficult home-road back-to-back. And according to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, the 25-year-old Barnes once again showed why he’s taken the torch from 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki as the team’s No. 1 option late in games.

“[Barnes] closed the game. I mean, he was absolutely brilliant,” Carlisle proclaimed while praising the forward’s late-game execution. “He hit on a variety of shots — twos, threes, drives. And look, that’s what great players do. I was real proud of him. You know, he had a pretty good rhythm going all night, and we just needed to get the ball in his hands.

“He’s the guy that’s going to be that guy,” the coach added. “You know, he’s going to be involved in some kind of action. He’s either going to touch the ball, or he’s going to be a key screener and probably touch the ball. Look, he’s had a year and a half of this now. Last year was a good initiation for him on a team that had struggles, had injuries and a tough schedule early. He was really thrown into the fire early and learned a lot about what it’s all about. But don’t forget he’s a former starter on a championship team, and he was a great player in college. This shouldn’t surprise anybody.”

Last season, Barnes produced a career campaign after spending his first four years with the Golden State Warriors. He also came into his own after inking a reported four-year deal worth $94 million that summer during free agency.

With Nowitzki sidelined for 25 of the Mavericks’ first 30 games during the 2016-17 schedule due to a nagging right Achilles strain, Barnes averaged a team-high and career-best 19.2 points per game while connecting on 46.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc. He also clocked a career-high 35.5 minutes per outing, playing in the team’s first 79 games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. Barnes led the Mavs in scoring 37 times last season after doing so with Golden State just six times in 307 games, posting seven 30-point performances in ’16-17 after just one such outing during his first four years. He’s since picked up where left off at this season, averaging a team-high 18.8 points, career-best 6.7 rebounds and career-high 2.1 assists per game while suiting up in all of the Mavs’ 43 outings thus far. And as Wednesday night demonstrated, Nowitzki believes Barnes has emerged as the team’s top closer late in games.

“Well, that was already obvious for us last year. We run everything basically down the stretch through him,” Nowitzki said while praising Barnes’ late-game closing abilities.

“You know, down the stretch when we need a bucket, usually we put it in Harrison’s hands. And he was fantastic (Wednesday night),” Nowitzki added. “I mean, his three ball was on, his midrange and his post-up game. He was fantastic.”

Operating as the team’s closer has been a process for Barnes, going from a role player with the Warriors to the No. 1 option in Dallas. However, it’s a role Barnes now says he’s beginning to relish.

Barnes is averaging 2.3 points and ranks just 45th in the NBA in clutch situations this season, which measures the last five minutes of a game that’s decided by five points or less. He’s also shooting 49 percent from the field in those situations and 37.5 percent from three-point range, leading the Mavs to a 7-21 record under those circumstances. Still, as Wednesday night showed, Barnes is ready for the big moment when his team needs him most. And according to Barnes, he’s gradually progressed into a better closer for the Mavericks throughout this season.

“You know, I liked the matchup with (Frank) Kaminsky. I just tried to be aggressive and attack the rim,” Barnes said while summing up Wednesday night. “Once I saw a few shots drop, I was kind of in a rhythm after that. Coach [Carlisle] kept going to me, and I was able to convert.

“It’s been a journey,” Barnes candidly added. “I’ve fallen short in that capacity a lot more times than I’ve come through, so I definitely have an appreciation seeing both sides. But I’m just thankful, like I said, for the trust. I mean, to have teammates and coaches work with you, take the time, help you understand angles and help you understand which shots to get to. In those situations, you’re probably not going to get a layup, so that’s one thing I’ve had to do. But just figuring out how to get enough space and how to get a clean look, I think that’s the progression for me. I feel like I’ve improved at that this season.”

Note: The Mavericks will now return to American Airlines Center on Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. The game will tip off at 1 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting Mavs.com, or by calling (214) 747-MAVS.

Injury updates:

Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis) — out
Seth Curry (stress reaction, left tibia) — out
Nerlens Noel (left thumb surgery) — out

Game 43: Mavs at Hornets

GAME RECAP: Mavericks 115, Hornets 111

Harrison Barnes scores 25 points with 11 rebounds to top Kemba Walker's 41-point output, as the Mavericks edge Charlotte, 115-111.

Dirk Nowitzki finally feels like himself

Dirk Nowitzki checks out during the first half of a game against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. He’s not off to a good start from the field, and his team trails 29-27 in the second quarter. He slowly walks to the bench and, still standing, throws on a long-sleeve shirt over his jersey. He bends his knee a few times as if he’s hurt, but he’s only hurting; he knows there might be pain, but there’s no injury. That’s just his 39-year-old body asking him why the heck he’s still playing basketball. Sometimes, it betrays him. Would tonight be one of those nights?

Nowitzki would sit out for the next seven minutes. By the time he’d touch the ball next, Dallas would be behind 48-41 with under a minute left to go in the first half, an uninspiring start to a game against a team the Mavericks should beat. But something suddenly changes. J.J. Barea brings the ball up the floor and runs a pick-and-roll with Nowitzki — is it 2018 or 2008? — and the German draws a switch. Barea recognizes the situation and dumps it to the man who helped make his career. Nowitzki catches, spins, and fires a shot he’s made 1,000 times. It falls.

The bucket seems to breathe life into both Dirk and his team, who would come out of the halftime break and score a season-high 39 points in the third quarter. Nowitzki would score eight of them himself, putting on a vintage display of post-ups and fadeaways, appearing to dial back the clock a decade or more. He would finish the night with a season-high-tying 20 points in 24 minutes.

Like it or not, Father Time comes for us all. Nowitzki has rejected his advances for quite a while now, but even the sixth all-time scorer in NBA history has felt vulnerable at times in his 20th season. The German has said many times that some nights he just doesn’t have it; his body simply won’t cooperate. That’s through no fault of his own — Nowitzki puts more time into maintenance than actual basketball these days — but rather the result of thousands and thousands of games, jumps, falls, and collisions.

It seemed like Tuesday night’s game against the Magic would be another one of those nights, but something clicked and suddenly the time machine took us back to 2008. From a distance it might seem like Nowitzki is having a down season, averaging just 12.3 points per game. But these last few weeks, just like during that seven-minute reprieve in the second quarter Tuesday night, something has clicked. Nowitzki has surged.

“It took me a while, unfortunately, to get going,” Nowitzki said, “but I feel a lot better the last month or so, even longer than that.”

In his last 14 games, Nowitzki is averaging 14.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 51.0/42.9/88.0 percent shooting splits. He’s sporting a career-high-tying 42.1 3-point percentage and a career-best 55.0 effective field goal percentage. He’s shooting above 90 percent from the free throw line for the first time since the 2009-10 season. And, most impressively, he’s played every single one of the Mavs’ 42 games. He wants to play all 82, something that’s only been done at age 39+ by Michael Jordan and John Stockton.

Instead of starting south and only getting worse, Nowitzki’s Tuesday night became a microcosm of his season. It took him a while to get going, then he suddenly hit his stride and never looked back.

“I’m just feeling so much better, honestly, than I did earlier in the season,” Nowitzki said. “The first couple weeks were tough, to kind of get my legs under me and really get going in the season. I guess you can practice all you want, and shoot all you want, and run on the treadmill all you want. But there’s nothing like guys pushing on you when you go up and down, and showing and helping on pick-and-rolls. There’s no way you can simulate that.”

The Mavs’ earlier and abbreviated training camp didn’t do Nowitzki any favors coming out of the gates this season, and he admitted he felt a little creaky early on. But now, on more nights than most, he’s able to do everything he wants to.

He’s flourished playing alongside Dennis Smith Jr. in the starting lineup and with the three-guard bench unit featuring J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, and Devin Harris. He’s no longer the focal point on a nightly basis, instead playing more of a supporting role as a pick-and-pop or spot-up shooter while Smith and Harrison Barnes do most of the heavy lifting.

Tuesday night, however, was different. The Magic kept switching screens, leaving point guard Elfrid Payton on an island against the 7-foot Maverick. Once Dirk saw one shot go in, he wanted more, and the Mavs were happily willing to oblige him. His work in the post was the driving force behind the team’s 39-point third quarter and 71-point second half.

The execution on the play above was nice. Nowitzki made the catch, waited to see if help would come, then took a dribble to gather himself before taking the shot. But it was what happened before all of that which let you know he was feeling good.

Upon setting the ball-screen and drawing a switch, Nowitzki trotted to the block. Smith immediately attacked the mismatched Bismack Biyombo but didn’t have an appealing driving lane, so he quickly withdrew from the paint and waited for the German to get to his spot. On nights when Nowitzki might not be feeling it, there’s a good chance he’d spot up on the 3-point line and let Smith go one-on-one with the center. But Tuesday night was not one of those nights. Body language tells stories of its own, and so too does how Nowitzki plays in the pick-and-roll. He’s even begun rolling every now and then lately, too, not popping.

At first glance it looks like since there’s no one else in the lane during the sequence above, obviously it’s an easy play to make. But it’s a chicken/egg argument. Did Dirk roll because no help was there, or did every Bulls defender disregard the paint because they thought there’s no way Nowitzki would roll? You can see Nikola Mirotic show on the screen and then turn his head anticipating Nowitzki to either spot up or re-screen. But by the time he turns his head, Dirk is already catching it five feet from the rim. Again: Is this a defensive breakdown or is this an opponent not even considering the possibility of Nowitzki rolling? Either way, it’s two points. Nowitzki has done this more lately and it’s a matter of time before teams start having to worry about it.

The Mavericks continue to space the floor so well that it makes cheating off your man as a defender to offer a double-team a risky proposition. After he sank a couple jumpers and drew a couple fouls, the Magic decided to send a second defender, but Nowitzki made them pay with the pass.

Later, he posted up all-time Mavs assassin D.J. Augustin at the nail — his favorite spot — where it’s impossible to send a double-team without leaving someone one pass away wide-open. These are areas Nowitzki rarely ventures into unless he’s feeling good.

After shooting just 43.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc in his first 18 games of the season, Nowitzki’s 14-game renaissance has vaulted him back up the efficiency leaderboard. Among the 167 players who average at least 10 possessions per game, Nowitzki ranks 17th in points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, ahead of names including Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James. Does that mean he’s better than them right now? No. But it doesn’t matter if you’re literally only shooting wide-open layups: If you score more efficiently than names like that at age 39, it means you’re having a pretty incredible season.

Nowitzki is scoring great right now. But he’s still 39 years old. There might be another stretch where his body betrays him, and he’s said himself there will still be nights when he just doesn’t have it. Second nights of back-to-backs immediately come to mind; he’s shooting just 43.1 percent from the field and 34.8 percent on 3s in seven such games this season, with another coming Wednesday against the Hornets. (On the flip side, he’s shooting 59.6 percent and 50.0 on 3s in six games coming off two days’ rest, which is phenomenal.)

All of that said, his recent run is still worth marveling at. Enjoy the stretches of excellence like this one while you still can, because you never know when the next one — or the next player like Nowitzki — will come around.

Game 42: Mavs vs. Magic

GAME RECAP: Mavericks 114, Magic 99

Dennis Smith Jr. drops 20 points and grabs seven rebounds to help lead the Mavericks to a 114-99 win over the Magic.