x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Thunder must catch Mavericks shooting star Dirk Nowitzki

The Oklahoma City Thunder must figure out a strategy in how to stop Dallas' Dirk Nowtizki.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki scores in front of the Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, right, and the centre Kendrick Perkins.
Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki scores in front of the Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, right, and the centre Kendrick Perkins.

The Oklahoma City Thunder might want to come up with a new strategy for defending Dirk Nowitzki before tonight's second game of the NBA's Western Conference final.

No matter who attempted to stop him in Game 1 on Tuesday night, the Dallas Mavericks forward either nailed a shot or made his way to the foul line.

The German hit 12 of 15 shots from the field and an NBA play-off-record 24 straight free throws on the way to 48 points, leading Dallas to a 121-112 victory.

"I thought Dirk was pretty good," Scott Brooks, the Thunder coach, said, tongue in cheek.

Nowitzki's 48 points were the most scored in the play-offs this year and two shy of his career high.

He credited extra shooting sessions he put in during the nine days Dallas waited for this series, and the confidence boost of hitting his first few shots.

There were daytime sessions with his teammates, of course, but also return trips at night. Knowing a chance for a return trip to the NBA Finals was coming up, Nowitzki wanted to make sure his wide array of shots were fine-tuned.

On Tuesday, Nowitzki acted as if the Oklahoma City Thunder and the 20,911 fans in the arena were merely there to watch another of his late-night workouts. Inside, outside and from the foul line, Nowitzki put up a total of 39 shots; only three did not go through the net.

"I was really looking to shoot early and was able to get my rhythm after the first couple of shots," said Nowitzki, who had six rebounds, four assists and four blocks. I kept attacking and my teammates kept feeding me and feeding me, and I was able to take advantage over some smaller players."

Jason Terry scored 24 points and JJ Barea added 21 as the Mavericks picked up where they left off in a sweep of the Lakers. They broke open a tight game with a 13-0 run late in the second quarter and never trailed again, stretching their franchise-record post-season winning streak to seven games.

Game 2 is tonight at Dallas, where the Mavs are 6-0 in the play-offs.

The Thunder - fresh off a seven-game series against Memphis that included a total of four overtimes - led by nine points early in the second quarter, then went 6mins 28secs between baskets. They eventually trailed by 16 before clawing within five points with 3mins 42secs left, and six in the final minute

"I thought we had a chance," Brooks said.

Six Thunder players had the misfortune of trying to guard Nowitzki, and the big German either shot over them or put them in foul trouble. He made 13 free throws in the third quarter alone. On one of those plays, when Serge Ibaka held up his long arms, Nowitzki went to his one-legged, step-back jumper and the ball went off the rim, against the backboard, off the rim again and dropped through the net. He also got to the line twice by way of defensive three-second calls.

"We can't get discouraged," said Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City's best player, who finished with 40 points but was whistled for two fouls against Nowitzki in a five-second span during the third quarter. "He's going to make shots. He's going to make off-balanced shots with a hand in his face."

Brooks came into this series unsure how to approach Nowitzki because his long-time first choice to cover him, Jeff Green, was traded to Boston in February.

Ibaka started against Nowitzki, got two quick fouls, and was replaced by Nick Collison. Kendrick Perkins, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden all took turns with little success.

"He was hot," Ibaka said.

Oklahoma City was careful to avoid any fine-worthy comments about the officiating, but players made it clear they did not like all the calls Nowitzki got. But Nowitzki noted that the Thunder got to the line more often than Dallas did. Durant made 18 of 19 free-throw attempts, and Westbrook made 14 of 18.

"After playing a physical series with Memphis, I think we were a little too physical with him," Durant said. "We have to make adjustments, be smarter. It's a learning experience, just feeling it out and seeing how we're going to play."