MIAMI -- Ric Bucher threw the question out there hours before the game: Is he enough of an emotional leader to carry this team to a championship?
It's a question you never want to ask of a leader of a team, especially one who just four days ago was being labeled the "best player in the NBA." Second to none.
But here we are, locked in a series of Spurs-Pistons proportions, and the question that followed Tim Duncan into Game 7 last year has matrix'd itself into the life of Dirk Nowitzki.
And it is a question -- love it or not, accurate or not -- that will define his career for at least the next seven days. And there will be a positive answer to the question only if, this time next week, Dirk Nowitzki is hoisting two trophies over his head not just one.
Is it fair to go there?
To start checking a superstar's heart, soul and cojones at this time in the series, when one team isn't overtly superior to the other team.
Is it right to question a player's ability to lead after he's proven over 98 games that he has the stones -- onions as Bill Raftery likes to call them -- to take his squad to the promised land?
In the case of Dirk Nowitzki the question at this point may not be right but it just became a legit one.
And the reason it is legit has nothing to do with his 36 percent shooting in the first four games, his four-point drop-off in scoring from the regular season, his missed free throw with the game on the line in Game 3, his 2-of-14 from the floor in Game 4.
It's legit because it has everything to do with his body language, and how once he got to the Finals it seems to have changed. Like he wants to get his swagger on, but he can't.
It's legit because he's hanging around the 3-point line like Kells hangs around grammar schools. It's legit because when his team shoots only 31 percent from the field and he grabs only one offensive rebound on a team that, until Game 3, had never lost the rebounding battle in any playoff game this year, it gives us the right to question body parts. It's legit because on the other end of the court there's a player -- nicknamed Flash, aka MJ: The Remix -- who's making Nowitzki's "effort" look secondary.
"We're not letting him find his sweet spot," Wade said about Dirk and how they're attacking him. "We're making him work harder to get to his sweet spot."
"We want to play him tough," James Posey, he of the 15 and 10, said of the concerted effort on Dirk. "We don't want him to find his comfort zone or his sweet spot."
And because of the way it seems like he's not the aggressive player who took Manu Ginobili to the hole three weeks ago, or the one who banged Phoenix for 50 only two weeks ago, the nonquestion of his performance statistically has shifted into something much more internal. Much more personal.
Something that will make everyone watching this unfolding "question" -- whether the one spot the Heat have been serious about taking from Dirk (his sweet spot) has become a soft spot?
It is never right to kick a great player when he's down.
Or when he's simply not playing well.
Or when his team just got beat by 24 and set a record for the least points scored in the fourth quarter of a Finals game: seven.
Which basically means this column ain't right.
But the one thing the playoffs do -- especially the Finals -- is expose everything about everybody. Good, bad, ugly. Right, wrong. Truths, lies.
How players react emotionally has always been a part of the dark side of Finals exposure.
And right now, with the series tied and the pendulum swinging to the East, it seems necessary to ask when the "nonemotional cool" in a certain player is going to leave and a necessary emotional outburst (even a subtle one) is going to jump out?
When is that player going to hit a basket and run down court with his tongue out? When is he going to stop letting Shandon Anderson and James Posey look like Bruce Bowen and Ron Artest, and take them in the paint and and pound them to death? When is he going to scream at a ref for not giving him the calls when the Heat players knock him down on his 3s? When is he going to remind them who he is?
When is this player going to take over a huddle while Avery Johnson and Del Harris are strategizing and tell all 11 other players, "Screw Miami, let's show them we got some beast in us, too"? When is he going to sink a free throw and backpedal down court with his index finger over his mouth letting the crowd know that "DA-VID HASSEL-HOFF" chant that they do is a waste of their breath?
When is he going to stop letting Antoine Walker and Dick Bavetta punk him?
Even inside Avery, Dirk's biggest advocate, the question seems to be lingering.
"Hopefully what happened tonight will light a fire under them," he said after Game 4. "It really disappoints me when the other team is pushing and we're not pushing back hard enough."
Read between his lines.
"They're wrapping [Dirk] up. They're putting a blanket on him," Johnson finished. "Now he's got to get that blanket off of him."
And although Avery made a playground analogy about where he thinks his team needs to be psychologically and physically, is it not aggressiveness or energy that is at question with Dirk? Read the question again: Is he enough of an emotional leader to carry this team to a championship?
Emotion equating to passion. Emotion equating to verbalization, body movement, confidence. Emotion equating to emotions.
There was a moment before a practice after Game 1, when Dirk was talking to the media, and at the end of his comment a fly flew in front of him. With one swing his hand hit the table. The fly lay dead under it. Flat on the table. Dirk looked at the fly, got up and stepped away.
On Sunday he needs to recreate that moment in the huddle while the Heat are being introduced. At least that way they'll know that he cares about killing a team that's trying to kill him.
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.