Dirk criticism makes no sense

By Jan Hubbard

(This column appeared in the FW Star-Telegram in April 2008)


For the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure out how the course of the Mavericks-Hornets series would have changed if Dirk Nowitzki had followed the sage advice of the TNT studio crew and slapped David West’s hand in Game 1.

The incident between the two occurred with 1:49 left in the game on Saturday, when Nowitzki applied — accidentally it appeared — an elbow to West’s lip. West was understandably upset and began pointing his finger at Nowitzki and then tapped Nowitzki on the cheek several times.

I must admit that if someone did that to me, my reaction could very well be to slap the person’s hand away. I suppose size would factor into it. If Shaquille O’Neal was upset with me and tapped me on the cheek, I would consider myself fortunate.

The principle is one I understand, but to draw a correlation between Dirk’s unresponsiveness and his overall toughness is idiotic. To suggest that the incident has anything to do with the Mavericks trailing 2-0 in the series is even nuttier.

The TNT guys — Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith — were all huffy about it, however. Male hormones were raging on the set. If testosterone had been smoke, there would have been a mushroom cloud in the TNT studios.

Barkley and Smith brought it up a second time Wednesday night and they will no doubt make it a topic for the rest of the series. TNT has by far the best sports studio show on television, and the opinions expressed are influential. You can be sure they will be mimicked by a large group of unoriginal thinkers throughout the country.

But the criticism doesn’t make sense. Let’s say that Dirk had acted in a manner that would have met with the TNT gang’s approval. If he had slapped West’s hand away, would that have helped the Mavericks stop Chris Paul from scoring 32 points with 17 assists in New Orleans’ 127-103 Game 2 victory?

Dirk didn’t appear to be intimidated or fearful. He was 7-of-11 from the field with 27 points in Game 2. It seemed to me the larger problem was Avery Johnson’s offense, which produced only 11 shots for Dirk, and the Hornets’ defense.

In the first two games, Nowitzki is 16-of-32 from the field for 50 percent and he has averaged 29 points. His teammates are 43-of-116 for 37.1 percent.

Dirk is not the problem.

“Dirk is a warrior,” Avery Johnson said. “He’s been there every day, every night. He plays in every game that he humanly can play in. If he doesn’t play in the game, something is wrong. For him to have missed that time with that ankle, that was pretty severe and he came back from that. He’s a trouper. He’s a tough guy… we need more of our players to step up and just basically do their jobs.”

Let’s make this clear: Dirk Nowitzki is not a fighter. Neither is Tim Duncan. David Robinson wasn’t. Nor was Scottie Pippen, Dirk’s idol. I can name a lot of players who were not fighters, but were still great players.

And how do you measure toughness? If it’s missing only 22 games in the past nine years, then Nowitzki qualifies. If toughness is returning from a painful ankle sprain in 11 days — a full week and a half before the most optimistic timeline — then Nowitzki qualifies.

There is no player on the Dallas Mavericks who is played more physically on a nightly basis than Dirk Nowitzki. He is constantly double-teamed, bumped, grabbed and pushed, but he never shies away from contact.

When confronted by West, he hardly pulled a Carmelo Anthony. He did not take a swing and backpedal 80 feet. He looked West straight in the eye and didn’t blink.

Again, Nowitzki is not a fighter. His approach has been to counter any attack against him with his play. That seems to be pretty smart. But apparently for some critics, smart is not manly.

If Nowitzki had responded physically to West and shoved him, who knows what would have happened? Maybe West would have taken a swing. Maybe Dirk would have defended himself and fought back. And then he would have been suspended, and how intelligent would that have been?

Because he is the greatest 7-foot shooter in the history of basketball, Nowitzki spends a lot of time away from the basket, which is what he’s supposed to do, but the result is that he is characterized as soft.

Still, he averaged 8.6 rebounds in the regular season. The no-nonsense Mr. West averaged 8.9. Kevin Garnett averaged 9.2. Isn’t rebounding toughness? How much tougher are they?

The cheek-tap is a silly sideshow. It has had nothing to do with the Hornets’ 2-0 lead nor will it have anything to do with the outcome of this series. More important, it has nothing to do with Dirk Nowitzki’s toughness. Anyone who suggests that it does has their head in the clouds.

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