Commentary

Dirk Nowitzki can't carry Mavs himself

Updated: June 7, 2011, 2:57 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- If he has to carry this much of the scoring load and if he gets this little offensive help, Dirk Nowitzki has about as much chance of beating the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals as Chicago's Derrick Rose had in the last round … which is to say, next to none. Tyson Chandler had one basket, one putback slam, in 40 minutes of play Sunday. Jason Kidd made three baskets in 35 minutes. Jason Terry, a guy capable of putting up 25 points, made just five baskets and missed 8 of 13 shots. J.J. Barea, who looked like Pete Maravich in the Mavericks' sweep of the Lakers, had two baskets against Miami. DeShawn Stevenson had one.

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Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesAt times on the offensive end of these Finals, it has looked like Dirk Nowitzki against the Heat.

After the first quarter, the Mavs not named Dirk made only 10 of 35 shots. This was at home, mind you. Nowitzki scored his team's last nine points in the shocking Game 2 comeback and his team's last 12 in Game 3. For the game, Nowitzki scored 34 points, the rest of the Dallas starters had 27, and that's not going to end well when the other team, Miami, has two of the five best offensive players in basketball and perhaps the best, fastest and most versatile defense in the game. If the Mavericks don't find Nowitzki some help soon, like during Game 4 Tuesday night, the considerable drama in this well-played and closely contested series will be briefer than people who enjoy entertaining basketball would like. As Terry said, "We didn't really give Dirk much help. …"

So, where does Mavs coach Rick Carlisle turn in Game 4? Shawn Marion isn't even waiting for his coach to ask. In Dallas' Game 1 loss, Marion hit half his shots and scored 16 points. And in Game 2, Marion kept his team close early and wound up hitting 9 of 14 shots and scoring 20. Asked about Dirk's being overloaded offensively, Marion said, "I gotta go aggressive like Game 2. I still can. I missed some shots in Game 3 I can hit. But yeah, I think I probably need to."

In the hallway of American Airlines Center, perhaps 100 feet from where Marion was speaking, sat a forgotten man, a player who very possibly could make this series quite different, a perfect helper for Dirk, a veteran who also could make life a little more difficult for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to score: Caron Butler.

He missed the last 50 games of the regular season, all 17 games of the playoffs … so far, with a ruptured patella tendon. Butler's absence has been so underplayed in the analysis of this series. If healthy, he would have at least the impact Udonis Haslem had for the Heat when he returned to the lineup against Chicago after missing 69 games. When the Mavericks practiced Monday, Butler practiced. He shot, worked up a sweat, looked pretty good to guys who watched him all the time as a member of the Wizards in past years. You couldn't help but look at Butler and think, "Could he possibly …?"

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Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesCaron Butler has been working out, but at this point it's unlikely he'll play.

Asked whether he could possibly play, well, Tuesday night or Thursday night in Game 5, or perhaps Sunday back in Miami in a Game 6, Butler said, "I don't know. I hope so. I feel good. They haven't cleared me to go yet. … I'm doing the things I do in summer workouts and haven't had a setback. It's a controlled environment, half-court one-on-one. … I want to be out there, but I want to be healthy. I don't want to be a shell of myself."

Carlisle, of course, knows he has to find an immediate solution for helping Dirk, not hypotheticals. He called it "unlikely" that Butler will play in the Finals. When I asked what impact Butler would have had if healthy, the coach said, "He would give us an entirely different dimension."

Butler, remember, averaged 15 points a game this season before his injury. He had a 30-point game against the Spurs and averaged 18 points a game in two games against Miami in the regular season. "It's tough to sit and watch," Butler said, especially because Wade, his buddy of eight years, is leading the Miami assault against Dallas and Butler can't do anything about it. "I'm sitting there watching my boy just go off," Butler said. "He's lifting his whole team. I wish him the best. … It's tough to just watch him go to work. … It's frustrating, man."

You don't have to make a big case. If a proven two-way player like Butler had scored a dozen points (three below his average) and had forced Wade into 10-for-21 shooting (instead of 12-for-21), the Mavericks likely would have won Game 3. An expression on Wade's face when Butler's name was broached, easily could have been interpreted as conflicted; the two are clearly friends, and Wade said he hates to see anybody, especially a buddy, sidelined by injury during something as career-defining as the NBA Finals.

But with Butler's reappearance "unlikely," the Mavericks are going to have to look at players already in uniform. Kidd, at age 38, simply cannot get into the teeth of the defense, which is to say into the lane, and wreak havoc as he did for most of his 17-year career. Terry is now blanketed on some possessions by James (6 inches taller, 80 pounds heavier), who likely would be guarding Butler if he were on the floor. Chandler has improved Dallas' defense immeasurably but isn't an offensive threat, and the center who is, Brendan Haywood, didn't play in Game 3, and who knows how effective he'll be for the rest of this series? Stevenson is a specialist, an occasional 3-point shooter in the mold of Chicago's Keith Bogans. And Barea, after feasting on the Lakers, isn't finding similar open spaces against the Miami defense.

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Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe players around Dirk Nowitzki have receded into the background. They need to reassert themselves on offense if they want a ring.

It looks as though Marion, 33 with a ton of mileage, and Terry will have to have big games not just in Game 4 but the rest of the way if Dallas is going to win. Those who think the Mavericks are just fine, having missed out on taking a 2-1 series lead on a game-ending jump shot that Nowitzki often makes, ignore the fact that the Bulls were close, too, close in every game … but lost the series 4-1. The Bulls and Mavericks, in fact, are very similar in that both lack a second scorer who can put the ball on the floor and create good shots, particularly late in games, against a great defense.

Carlisle talked about how the personality of the Mavs' offense is to spread the scoring around, to get six or seven players with at least five or six points, counteracting the need for one big scorer. Carlisle was at least as concerned about the runs his team allowed Miami on Sunday night, about not having to make up deficits of 15 points, 14 points. But perhaps it's as much Dallas' inability to score, everybody except Nowitzki that is, as anything else, as evidenced by the Mavs' 38.8 percent shooting in Game 1 and 39.5 percent shooting in Game 2. That Nowitzki is able to score more than 30 points and shoot better than 50 percent against such a carnivorous defense speaks to his offensive brilliance. But Dirk's brilliance, even if he puts together several more masterful performances before this series ends, is most unlikely to be enough unless the Mavericks get several other players pulling their end of the rope.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon