SAN ANTONIO -- The Mavericks' penultimate possession on Wednesday against the Spurs was one we've seen a thousand times over the past decade. Dirk Nowitzki sets a quick pick, but long enough for Manu Ginobili to switch onto him. San Antonio doubles from the baseline, like they had all night, so Dirk gives it up. It goes from Zaza Pachulia to Wesley Matthews to a wide open Devin Harris, who buries the triple, bringing Dallas within one point with 38 seconds to play.
In simpler terms: Dirk catches. Dirk is doubled. Dirk finds the open man.
Gregg Popovich's game plan headed into this matchup in the year 2015 was no different than the game plans he trotted out five, 10 or 15 years ago: limit Dirk Nowitzki, double him, get the ball out of his hands. On a few possessions, like the second-to-last one, Dallas burned them. On most of them, though, San Antonio was more than happy with the outcome. The Mavericks only scored 83 points, after all, and they lost.
Hitting 5-of-8 for 13 points, Dirk clearly warranted the attention. It's easy to rage that he deserved more shots and there's few games where that isn't true. In his younger days, Dirk would be able to force the issue by driving to the rim, something he acknowledged to me after the game.
"I would have driven more back then," Dirk said. "What they made me do back in the day was play off the dribble and I was obviously a little better off the dribble then than I am now."
Yet San Antonio's double teams and Dirk's cross-court passes on Wednesday were leading to open looks. The Mavericks took 40 uncontested shots -- measured by SportsVU as not having a defender within 3.5 feet -- but made only 10. Deron Williams missed all eight of his uncontested looks, finishing 4-of-16 for the evening. Matthews, with a 6-of-16 evening, hit only three of his 11 uncontested attempts.
"If I hit a couple more shots, they might have to play things a little differently," Williams admitted afterwards. "They were pretty much daring me to shoot. I had some wide open looks that were just not falling. It was a frustrating night."
Certainly, a supernova-hot Williams (or any of the Mavericks' shooters) could have forced a change from San Antonio. Anything else, though, and maybe they would have just stuck on Dirk and took their chances.
"The way I've been shooting it, they'll probably still live with someone else taking shots," Dirk said matter of factly.
On the second night of a back-to-back, Dallas was down one of their primary shotmakers in Chandler Parsons. Though disadvantaged by his absence, the rest of the team knew Dirk would generate them looks all night. In a few moments, a more aggressive Dirk maybe could have squeezed off a contested jumper. On one drive to the basket in particular, it looked like Dirk passed up a relatively clean look. But mostly, this was about his teammates around him filling their lanes.
"We've just got to get our spacing better so he can see where the double team's coming from and make the right reads to the open man," Matthews said. "Get a guy diving to the front of the basket and three shooters spaced around the perimeter."
And, as Matthews mentioned later on, make their shots.
It's a marvel that Dirk still threatens teams into a double team at the ripe age of 37 and it's almost equally depressing that his teammates just haven't been talented enough to take advantage of it for yet another year. Contrast it with Tim Duncan, two years Dirk's senior, who attempted only four shots on Wednesday night while playing 28 minutes. No, Dallas didn't constantly double team him -- Duncan just didn't need to carry that type of load.
It's never come easy for Dirk, not a decade ago and certainly not now, grinding away on a middling Western Conference playoff hopeful. When he's fighting through hard pick-and-roll coverage and constant switches, every offensive possession can be a chore. He doesn't have the legs he used to nor the quickness, but he still has his mind. He can't control who his teammates are, so why worry? Without trusting them to make open shots -- and then those players actually making open shots -- this year isn't going anywhere, anyway.
"When the shots are there I step into them," Dirk said with finality. "If not, let another guy run another pick and roll. That's how we're going to be successful this year."