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Longreads: Dirk vs. the Best in the Playoffs

Ralph Orlowski

Dirk Nowitzki against the greatest PFs of his era, head to head

As we watch the Big Fundamental do what basically no one in NBA history has ever done, take a team to the NBA finals about 14 years after he did it the first time, cementing his place as the best PF of all time, I thought it'd be a good time to take a look at where Dirk stacks up, by taking a look at how he performed head to head against the greatest PFs of his era.

So here it is: Dirk against his best contemporaries, on the biggest stage.

Tim Duncan #1, May 2001:

Dirk Nowitzki's first playoff series ever came in May of 2001 against the Utah Jazz. I remember it pretty clearly, since it was the last time I ever felt good watching a playoff game-the win against the Jazz was so much more than I expected, even if Dirk's line of 23.8 and 7.6 was not what we would come to expect.

While in the next series, against the Spurs, he struggled considerably in the first three games, they would prove to be vital ones. The Mavericks would lose in five to Those San Antonio Spurs in the first ever Tim-Dirk playoff clash but in game 4, a light went on that has never gone off. Dirk threw up 30 and 9 in game 4, shooting 61% from the field, leading the Mavericks to a four point win. Although the Spurs would demolish the Mavs in the fifth game eliminator it certainly wasn't Dirk's fault.

Dirk's introduction to being the lone star in the Dallas sky, Tim's introduction to a decade of Dirk, and Dirk's Hello There to the playoff stage was that 105-87 loss to the Spurs. He scored 42 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, dished 2 assists, got 1 block and somehow swiped six steals.

All told, Tim, who'd already won a championship in 1999 and would win his second that year, bested the neophyte Dirk to the tune of 27-17.4 with 2 blocks, 3.6 assists and a steal to Dirk's 23-8.6 with 1 block, 1.8 steals and 1.2 assists, but it wasn't a fair fight yet. Those days, however, weren't very far in the future.

Kevin Garnett, April 2002

In my opinion, the greatest players of Dirk's era are Duncan, Kobe, Dirk, Garnett in that order. A lot of people put Garnett ahead of Dirk, because he was a two way player but that's not really fair. Garnett in his prime was a destructive defender and a good scorer. But that doesn't really incapsulate how MUCH better a scorer Dirk was, and is. Kevin's been in the league four more seasons than Dirk is about 200 ahead of him in points. No one should undersell that mismatch.

Although back in the days of best of five first round series and although it was a Dallas sweep, the Mavericks-Minnesota playoffs in April 2002 were an instant classic BECAUSE of the head to head matchup. Two of the top five PFs of all time, in their primes, and by a great deal the centerpiece of their two teams. And it didn't disappoint. Kevin Garnett averaged an insane 24 points, 18.7 boards, 5 assists and 2 blocks a game.

But Dirk averaged 33.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3 steals and 1.3 blocks game, shooting 53% from the floor and 73% from three and no game in this series was particularly close. That nearly 16 rebounds, by the way, is an understated but essential part of the game of the Dirk Nowitzki Mavs fans have known and loved-he thrived on going against the best. He thrived on the big stage. People never got that, because he didn't talk afterwards. But he saw Kevin Garnett gobbling up boards and he wasn't going to let him do all the damage, that way.

Tim Duncan #2, May 2003

In 2002-2003, the Mavericks got their shot at the team that taught them what playoff basketball is all about, the San Antonio Spurs. And then, of course, they didn't. After torching the Timberwolves, with 30 points, 9 rebounds, including a 46-10 game, a 42-10 game and a 31-11 game to cap it off, then fighting his way through the Kings, averaging 21 points and 14 rebounds, including 30-19 in the finisher, you'll remember that Dirk suffered a knee injury in game 3, and missed the next 3 games. And he may have made it back on the court for Game 7, he may not have, and he may have been effective, and he may not have, but Steve Kerr made sure he didn't get a chance. Somehow.

The great Duncan-Dirk matchups would have to wait-but in the three games he DID play, even with the measly 15-9 he managed in the game he got injured, he threw up 25-11, including 38-15 to get the series started with a win.

Tim Duncan #2, Pau Gasol #1, April and May 2006

It would be a couple years before Dirk and any of the Great PFs would meet again, thanks to the emergence of the Suns and the last gasp of the Kings. But in 2005-2006, he would see two of them, Duncan and Gasol, and this time there was nothing in his way. Dirk made it to the 2005-2006 playoffs healthy, experienced, and playing some of the best basketball of his life. And it showed.

Just as with Garnett's Wolves, Gasol's Grizzlies never had a chance. Although Pau managed a respectable enough 20.3-6.8-1.3, it wasn't enough to come close to Dirk and the Mavericks. Dirk went for 31-8 over four games, and only one game was within single digits.

The next series would be the greatest playoff series I've ever watched, a series so good it made the NBA change its seeding rules so something that good wouldn't be wasted in the conference semifinals. Over seven games, and that famous seventh game over time, Tim Duncan averaged an immense 32-11.7 with 2.6 blocks and 3.7 steals. Dirk could not quite match him, with 27.1-13.3 2.7 assists and 1.4 steals. Even in that Game 7, Timmy was just a little bit better than Dirk, throwing up 41-15 with 6 assists, 3 blocks and a steal to Dirk's 37-15 3 assists, a block and a steal.

But it was Dirk who made the most important shot, a rim-rattling dunk with Manu's hand on his wrist and the following free throw to tie the game with 21 seconds to go-and according to the Game Log, it was Dirk who blocked Tim Duncan's put-back attempt with zeroes on the clock to send it to overtime.

Where, incidentally, Dirk and Duncan each had two points, Jason Terry had four, DeSagana Diop had three and Jerry Stackhouse had four. That's how basketball go, I guess.

Tim Duncan #3, April 2009

In my opinion, it was this series which saved the Mavericks. On the heels of first round exits against the Warriors and the Hornets, and staring at a third against the powerhouse Spurs, Cuban and Donnie had to be thinking about breaking it up and trying again. Instead, the Mavs kept their core intact, and within two years had made the moves-Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, and yes, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood-that brought the trophy to Dallas.

But it was a weird matchup. Duncan, by this time suffering the foot injuries that most observers thought would end his career, wasn't his usual self and neither was Dirk. However, for the record books, Dirk did average 19.2 and 8.6 while Duncan averaged 19.8 and 8.0. And if anyone wants to explain to me how, in two straight playoff matchups Duncan outscored Dirk and Dirk outrebounded Duncan, be my guest.

The Mavs would go on to lose in five to the Denver Nuggets still helmed by Carmelo Anthony, but it would be one of Dirk's most brilliant series. The media, predictably, was all over Dirk in that series for saying the Nuggets guarded him well, the kind of thing mean S.O.B.s who win championships would never say, apparently. They didn't want to notice, one suspects, that Dirk's 28-10 game 1, on 55% shooting, was his worst scoring output of the series, in which he averaged 34.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, a block and a steal. He shot 53% from the floor and 92% from the line.

And, of course, that series could have been a lot closer than it was, as it almost certainly should have been 2-2 after four rather than 3-1, given the no-call on Antoine Wright wrapping up Carmelo before he could shoot a three. But, then, any series in which Dirk has to go 44-13 to win by two probably wasn't fated to go the Mavericks way.

Tim Duncan #4, April 2009

Yowza. All told, the Mavericks faced the Spurs in the playoffs 5 times and went 2-3. Not bad for a team that has one ring against the other guy's four, going for five. If you add to that the fact that of the last four, one involved a Dirk knee injury, one was a 5 game Mavericks victory, and the other two included a combined 13 games, you can get some idea of just how good those 00s Mavericks teams really were. It's this kind of thing that keeps 2006 haunting me-Dirk deserved that second ring, and to be known as one of the truly great players of the 00s. He earned his one more than most players have ever earned anything, but from a historical perspective if you could say this guy went to three conference Finals and won two rings, it's a resume up there with some of the absolute best.

However, this was the series which made it so surprising that the Spurs are right back there as one of the most dominant teams in the game. Yes, the Spurs won. But they went on to get swept by the Suns in the next round, and meanwhile Duncan managed an unimpressive (by his high standards) 18.2-9.5 to Dirk's 26.7-8.2. This included one of the great playoff performances I've ever seen, foreshadowing an even more impressive effort against the Thunder in 2011, when Dirk went 12-14, 12-12 from the stripe for 36 points and the win.

At that point, as good as Dirk still was, it certainly looked like the Mavs were on their way out, and the Spurs not too far behind them. And then...

Pau Gasol #2, May 2011

One of the things NBA commenters are worst at is context. It's what my buddy J-Tjarks tells me is the "Fundamental Attribution Error", the idea that all things are possible through the will so what's lacking is personal, not contextual.

In this case, by virtue of a steal of a trade which sent Pau Gasol to a star-studded Lakers team and to three straight Finals appearances, Mavs fans everywhere had to listen to announcers, notably Steve Kerr, wax on and on about how Pau Gasol was the best PF in the league.

But this was the series-the 2011 Mavs-Lakers series that forever disabused everyone of that impression.

And it's also the series that seemed to break Pau, on some fundamental level.

Pau's managed an even-more-unimpressive-than-it-sounds 12.5-9.3 to Dirk's 25-9 which, incidentally, included sitting out nearly all the second half of the game four blowout. It's not that Pau was disengaged, his 9 boards were impressive on a team with Bynum and he even managed 4 assists a game. It's that Dirk, in 2011, was a stone cold, killing machine. And Pau Gasol got in his way.

I have never in my life seen a player shoot 50% over the course of the season from the places Dirk shot from in 2011. He was about .02 (.393 from three) and .03 (.892 from the line) from the 40-50-90 club. In that Lakers series it was 57-73-94. And the hangover, a game 1 12-14, 24-24 from the line, 48 point effort against the Thunder was the most efficient scoring game I imagine I'll ever see.


There you have it, folks. Dirk Nowitzki has gone head to head, in the playoffs, against Kevin Garnett once, Pau Gasol twice, and Tim Duncan five times. He's 3-0 against Garnett and Gasol and was statistically superior in every matchup, sometimes considerably. He's 2-3 against Duncan, but that includes Dirk's first playoffs and his only major postseason injury. Duncan, in his prime, certainly had his day against Dirk, but in recent matchups there's been a draw and a statistically superior showing. In fact, this investigation reveals the startling fact that Dirk has NEVER lost a playoff game to Garnett or Gasol. He loves to play the best, and he thrives when he does.

It's worth noting, of course, that of these four guys, Dirk may be the worst defender and that by "statistics" I mean only comparably old-fashioned ones like points, boards, blocks, assists. This is especially notable with Duncan, the only guy on this list capable of matching Dirk point for point in the playoffs and of playing vastly superior defense.

I don't think there's an intelligent fan out there who doubts that Dirk's career was better than Pau's, despite Pau's additional ring. Obviously KG spent many good years in the Eastern Conference where he and Dirk never got the chance for another playoff showdown.

But (very) long story short, I think this shows pretty clearly that against the best of his era, Dirk always brought his A-game. And more often than not, he came out on top.