- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Who knew that the night of Nov. 27 in Dallas would tell us so much about how this NBA season would be decided?
By now you're surely well aware of the players-only meeting in the visitors' locker room at American Airlines Center on that landmark date. Nearly 45 minutes of air-clearing -- after the Heat fell to 9-8 with an 11-point loss to the Mavs that felt more lopsided than that -- served as the springboard for Miami's turnaround.
Yet it turns out that there were some prophetic words from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, just outside the clubhouse door, about an hour before that season-turning loss.
Asked to assess the big difference between the 2011 Dirk and the Nowitzki whom the Heat smothered in the Finals five years earlier, Spoelstra welcomed a question about something other than coaching in the face of mounting early pressure and lasered in on one of the biggest weapons Dallas used to conquer the West.
"More than anything, he's seen every coverage," Spoelstra said that night. "Some of the things we were successful with in the Finals, [Nowitzki] carves that up now.
"He's adjusted to all the defenses. It's almost like his mind is a computer now."
There you go. That's the big evolution in Nowitzki's game, if you're desperate to find one, since 2006.
"Experience," Nowitzki says simply.
The Heat's Udonis Haslem had success against him in 2006 -- as did Golden State's Stephen Jackson did in 2007 -- because slightly smaller defenders with a penchant for physicality used to be the toughest for Nowitzki to counter. The rugged Haslem was obsessed with "getting up into Dirk's airspace," as Spoelstra described it, which often led to hurried, harried shots from Nowitzki, who didn't yet have the requisite trickery and precision to shake him.
"He's gotten stronger," Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said in the last round after Nowitzki's 48-point detonation in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. "Earlier in his career you could put a small on him and just really push around him and make him catch where he didn't want the ball. Now you can't do that."
Nowitzki doesn't rush. He patiently dissects defenses no matter what the coverage is. He either works himself to where he wants to go to shoot over people, spins hard to the bucket when defenders hug him too close as he backs in or punishes double-teams with a passing touch that improves more than anything else in his game from season to season. If opposing coaches hit him with constant switching, or try to trap him with a second defender when he spins, or even load up on his left hand to try take away his strong side, Nowitzki usually has a counter in his head.
Soon-to-be Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, working throughout the playoffs for TNT, describes it as the difference between a veteran sage who almost always takes shots he wants to take and the younger version of Nowitzki that often relied on pure talent to make tough shots. Or as Peja Stojakovic -- who became a Mavericks teammate after years of playoff battles against Nowitzki with Sacramento -- is prone to say: "Dirk is a like surgeon now."
A former teammate of some renown sees it the same way.
Steve Nash knows the feeling, because the game has helpfully slowed down for him, too. It's one of the rare upsides to getting older.
"Dirk might be marginally stronger than he used to be, but what I see is his total command of the situation," Nash said by phone from an undisclosed vacation location, where he's been sneaking looks at a TV late at night to see two of his best friends -- Nowitzki and Jason Kidd -- chase the ring that has eluded all three of them.
"He's totally in command," Nash said. "He's a machine. He gets the ball in his spots, takes him time and makes the defense pick their poison. That's what really separates him.
"He was always capable of doing these things. He was so good at that at 25, but sometimes you did think, 'What's he gonna be like in his 30s?' He's just more efficient, more patient. He's one of the best closers in the game -- and I think he's been doing it for a long time -- but I don't think he gets as much credit for that as he should."
Said Memphis Grizzlies swingman Shane Battier, who's been matched against Nowitzki frequently over the years: "He's always been an elite shooter. I played against him in a tournament in Paris [when both were teenagers] and it was the same thing hitting 3s, step-back J's. Same game. Tough to guard.
"But now he's so much more willing to take the punishment when the game's on the line. I think that's really the only [noticeable] difference. When I was in Houston, we had all the [advanced] numbers on Dirk. Usually there's a weakness in a guy's game to tell you which way to shade him to make him ineffective. With Dirk, there's no good answer. Plus he's on a roll right now, so that's why I would not count the Mavericks out in this series."
Marc Stein looks at the five major changes in Dirk Nowitzki since his first trip to the Finals five years ago.