What can Dirk and Durant do as encore?
The stars' explosion in Game 1 brought thoughts of past legendary performances
DALLAS -- It took 48 minutes into the Western Conference finals and 88 combined points from natural-born scorers Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant for some older ballers to start dialing up the retro machine.
"You get one guy getting 48 and one guy getting 40," said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, a member of the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers of the 1980s that routinely battled Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Dominique Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks.
"That's like old school," Cheeks said. "Like Bernard King and Larry Bird and those guys. That had to be one of the best playoff performances in a long time."
As the series moves quickly into Thursday night's Game 2 with Nowitzki's 48 two nights ago giving the Dallas Mavericks a 1-0 lead over the Thunder, electric anticipation abounds. What will two of the most affable superstars in all of sports do next?
Durant is the polite, 22-year-old with extraordinarily long limbs and a repertoire so unique and unguardable for a 6-foot-9 forward that he's gone for three 40-point games and four more over 30 this postseason to lead all playoff scorers with a 29.8 average.
Nowitzki is the 32-year-old perennial All-Star, who, in his 11th consecutive playoffs suddenly finds everyone fawning over his game. Not that this "new Dirk" really cares. His historic Game 1 nudged his playoff scoring average into career-best territory at 28.5 points a game, 5 1/2 points clear of his regular-season mark.
"It's definitely unique," Mavs center Tyson Chandler said of the heavyweight showdown. "But we've got to do a better job of slowing their guy down. It's all right for our guy to go for 40, but we need to keep their guy in the 20s."
The two were spectacular in the opener. Both hit their first six shots and never relented. Nowitzki was 8-of-9 from the floor for 21 points at the half. Durant had 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Nowitzki hung 17 in the third quarter and Durant retaliated with 13 in the fourth, but the Thunder's late charge fell short. Nowitzki set an NBA record by making all 24 of his free throw attempts. Durant made 18-of-19.
"He's great at drawing fouls and putting himself in great position to draw fouls," Durant said of Nowitzki. "He's probably one of the best free throw shooters in the history of our game."
If you're expecting bad blood between these two warriors with an NBA Finals berth at stake, you've misjudged their personalities.
"I'm probably his biggest fan just because he's a quiet guy, he's fun to watch, he can get his shot up at any time, he's athletic, he can get to his spots whenever he wants -- so I mean he's probably one of the toughest covers in this league," Nowitzki said. "You're not going to stop him with one guy. You've got to rotate guys on him. You've got to help with five guys, and we actually thought we did that and he still got 40.
"That's how amazing of a talent he is, and the future of this league is in his hands."
Nowitzki is seizing the present with a vengeance, and both players' astounding performances couldn't help but send others around the game dialing up the past.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, a player on three Celtics teams in the mid-80s, instantly conjured up great battles between Bird and Wilkins. Carlisle had moved on by the greatest series of those matchups in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals.
In Game 7, Wilkins scored 47 points on 19-of-23 shooting, but Bird's game-winner gave him 34 and the Celtics won the series. Wilkins averaged 31.3 points and had two 40-plus games. Bird averaged 26.4 points.
"There were a lot of games like that and we had those kinds of games in the regular season, as well," Carlisle said. "A lot of times Bird would go for 43 and Dominique would go for 41 and we'd win by two. Those kinds of things happen."
In terms of happening in Game 1 of a playoff series, only twice before in NBA history have opponents scored 40 or more points. It's been a decade since two dominant scorers took over an entire series. Cheeks was a 76ers assistant under Larry Brown when Allen Iverson and Toronto's Vince Carter went crazy in the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals, another one that went seven.
Carter posted games of 35, 50 and 39 points. Iverson went for 34, 54, 30 and 52 to advance the 76ers, who went on to the NBA Finals.
Can the Mavs or Thunder find the defensive answers in the chess match of adjustments to slow Nowitzki and Durant? Consider that Nowitzki this season has posted 95 points in 92 minutes against OKC. Durant is averaging 32 points on 53.1-percent shooting.
"Not really," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "The only reason why I say that is because they're going to get their touches. And when they're given a quality amount of touches, they can produce at a high rate."
Of course if both players continue to pile up the points and effectively cancel one another out, perhaps Carlisle's theory in such cases will ring true.
"I do believe this," Carlisle said. "A lot of the outcome of the game does come down to the role players around them a lot more than people would guess or surmise."
Terry, in the midst of his own career playoff run with six 20-point games under his belt, just smiled.
"Maybe it's true," he said.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.