The fickle finger of Dirk Nowitzki's fate
How much or how little it bothers him will play a big role in Thursday's Game 2
MIAMI -- Every shooter in the world has a story about a sprained or dislocated digit, a pinkie or ring or index finger that required a splint or special tape job. So going into Game 2 of the NBA Finals, there is no shortage of opinion about Dirk Nowitzki's middle finger, the one on his left hand with the torn tendon that he'll try to protect with a little splint Thursday night, the one that will either be completely unaffected or hamper Nowitzki in some tangible way, depending on whom you believe.
Dennis Scott, the NBA analyst who connected on nearly 40 percent of his 3-point shots in a 10-year career, said of Nowitzki's injury, "It should be a non-issue when it comes to shooting the ball. They'll probably tape the middle and ring finger on his left hand. He won't be able to strip the ball without pain. Rebounding might be affected a little. Catching a chest-pass, fine & a high pass will be harder to control because you need your fingers to do it. And when a guy comes through the lane and bumps you a bit, that'll hurt. That will be painful. But his shot should be fine. It's his off-hand, his guide-hand. I broke my pinkie finger once and they taped the pinkie and ring finger on my left [non-shooting] hand. Then you take some Advil or Tylenol and go play."
Miami's Mike Miller wore a hard splint on an injured finger on his shooting hand for more than 30 games, "until I just had to get rid of it. I went with a tight taping. But it's not the shot as much as the other stuff. Your shot's your shot. You can get comfortable with the ball. You play around with the shot until the ball is in the pocket [of the hand]. It's the hard passes, trying to get the ball into the pocket without fumbling it."
Rick Carlisle sounded like a football coach, all but using the word "distraction" to describe the whole episode. Carlisle said, "Well, he's going to play. I'm not sure of the exact severity of the injury, but I know he's going to tape it up, put a splint on it, or whatever it is, and he's going to play. And we're not going to make a big issue out of it. At this point, you kind of deal with the hand that's dealt."
Carlisle wasn't attempting to be funny, trust me. But there's so much more to it. Nowitzki said in one moment, "I'll be OK. I'm really not that worried; it'll be OK. I'm not that worried about it. It's not that sore." But in the next, he conceded there are facets of his game that will be affected by the injury: "I'm more worried about ballhandling with my left hand and finishing with my left than other stuff. Anybody who has watched me play the last 13 years knows I like to go left, like to finish with my left."
Tim Legler, the ESPN analyst who made 43 percent of his 3-point attempts in nine NBA seasons, had a completely different take on what Nowitzki is likely to experience Thursday night.
"It will affect him in some way," Legler said. "The problem is Dallas needed Dirk to be 110 percent in this series, not 90 percent. Even if it's not his shooting, suppose he has to pass out of a double-team with his left hand? Suppose he's trying to gather the ball while moving to his left to go up for a shot? I once played with an open dislocation of my index finger. & What you don't realize is how quickly you catch the ball, turn it, get the seams lined up & all in a nano-second. Look, if this is Udonis Haslem, it's not a big injury. But to Dirk? It matters. It will affect him; the question is how much? How cleanly can you catch the ball and bring it across your body to line up the seams? Can he dribble going left, his favorite place to go one-on-one? I keep hearing people say it won't affect him. I can't imagine it's not going to affect him."
The Mavericks, to a man, say they're more concerned about being whipped by 10 in the category of offensive rebounding during Game 1, about the league's highest scoring bench being so impotent Tuesday, about losing track of Mario Chalmers several times, about a lack of production, specifically, from super-sub Jason Terry. It all seems to ignore the fact that if Nowitzki doesn't hit a higher percentage than Tuesday's 7-for-18, the Mavericks are very unlikely to win Game 2. Even if Nowitzki catches fire and hits, say, 55 percent of his shots, the Mavericks are still going to have to find a secondary scoring source, one who produces big points.
Refusing to dwell on Nowitzki's bad news might be the only approach to take with regard to his injury. But if the damage that resulted from a fluke swipe at the basketball Tuesday night prevents the Mavericks' best and most important player from being great or something very close to it Thursday night, Dallas is going to find out just how big a pain an injured middle finger can be.
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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