If you watched the Mavs/Hawks game from last night and your eyeballs didn't explode or blood didn't start pouring out of your ears (wait, that doesn't happen when you watch a frustrating Mavericks game?) then you might have caught a glimpse of something.
It was Dirk Nowitzki. Not the Dirk from two weeks ago or a month ago. The real Dirk.
We saw some post ups, some step-backs in the paint and even an isolated drive from the free throw line area. It resulted in 8 of 14 shooting, 24 points and the first time Dirk has looked normal all season.
There was one problem: he only took 14 shots. This has been the biggest problem since Dirk has returned in late December: He hasn't been healthy enough to take the burden of shot-taking and his teammates aren't doing a good enough job in recognizing when Dirk needs the ball.
The problem has been both ways, with Dirk simply not posting up and demanding the ball enough in half court sets. Cue up any game tape in the last two weeks and watch possessions with Dirk on the floor. Dirk will set a screen, pop to his spot and then usually stand and watch as O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison or another Maverick shoots it or just passes the ball and resets.
Whether that's Dirk not being fully in game shape or not trusting his surgically repaired knee, it isn't helping the Mavericks offense like Dirk should be. When Dirk is normal he'll set a screen and if he isn't immediately open for a pick and pop jumper, he'll battle for position and demand a post up and then go to work. That's how the Mavericks offense has operated in the past 10 years, regardless of if it was Jason Kidd or Anthony Johnson as the Mavericks point guard.
Sometimes the Mavericks would bring the ball up the court and Dirk would call for the post, without any screens or nonsense. That was what the Avery Johnson Mavericks were known for, grinding possessions out with the most efficient half court scorer in the league.
It just isn't happening this season and the numbers don't lie. According to Synergy Sports (with a helpful nod from our own Andy), in plays in which end in a turnover, shot attempt or free throws, here's the distribution of Dirk's plays:
Isolation: 8.8 percent
Post-ups: 23.9 percent
Spot-ups: 26.1 percent
Compare to even 2011-2012, which was a down year for Dirk:
Isolation: 11 percent
Post-ups: 29 percent
Spot-ups: 19.1 percent
Dirk is taking more spot-up jumpers, posting up less and relying more on his teammates to deliver the ball. Also, he's at 8.2 percent off screens, compared to 6.8 percent last year. Dirk isn't commanding the ball this year.
It's a combination of health and teammate awareness. Early on, Dirk wasn't even trying to call for the ball in the post. He was focused on just hanging out, getting his shots up and getting into shape. It's been a slow change to the normal Dirk and it finally happened on Monday night.
Except by the time Dirk got his first post touch and score in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks were down 99-98 and there were 44 seconds left. Against the Hawks, both Collison, Rodrigue Beaubois and Mayo were all too eager to launch a 20-footer after getting free from a Dirk screen.
There's also been some rumblings that perhaps Dirk's shooting will continue to suffer since there is no Jason Kidd around. It's true, Dirk's approach and shooting was definitely altered thanks to Kidd's arrival in 2008. Since the 2008 season, at least 70 percent (or more) of Dirk's 16 to 23 foot shots were assisted, according to Hoopdata.com. Kidd was finding Dirk in the half court, setting him up for easy catch and shoots from his prime spots on the floor.
In the 2011 championship season, 81.4 percent of Dirk's mid-range jumpers were assisted. Of course, when it came down to it in the playoffs, Dirk bullied his way into the paint and backed down defenders at will. But it was a smart plan from Dirk. Why waste all the effort in isolations and driving into the paint when you have a capable point guard that can set him up? It also needs to be noted that Tyson Chandler was sucking in a ton of attention with his hard rolls to the hoop, which left Dirk with a little more space for Kidd to rocket a pass to Dirk and splash down a short jumper.
But without Kidd and Chandler, the Mavericks simply need to reverse course and harken back to the Avery Johnson days of setting screens for Dirk not necessarily to get him a catch and shoot jumper, but to get him into his comfort zone and let him go to work. Dirk's current usage rate (23.9) would be the lowest since his third season in the league back in 2000-2001. His free throw rate is also abysmally low.
It appears Dirk's ready for that. Perhaps Rick Carlisle was waiting for the time to be right, to wait until Dirk's finally ready to carry the load. Hopefully that comes soon. The Mavericks offense continues to wilt in the fourth quarter of tight games as Dirk becomes an idol bystander, a rubbernecker to car accident that is the Mavericks crunch time offense. Unfortunately, time might have already run out.