So he kept shooting. And scoring.
Nowitzki made 12 of 14 shots and all 12 of his free throws, coming up with 36 points to carry the Dallas Mavericks to a 100-94 victory over the rival Spurs on Sunday night in Game 1 of their first-round series.
"Sometimes," Nowitzki said, "you have one of those nights where the basket is big."
The Spurs slowed Nowitzki in the first round last year by swarming him with two and sometimes three defenders. He was expecting it again this series and practically begged them to bring it on with the way he attacked whoever was covering him.
Nowitzki drove on Antonio McDyess and shot over Matt Bonner. There was a heave over McDyess and Richard Jefferson that was flung at the basket in hopes of getting a foul called; there was no whistle, but there was a basket. Nowitzki made a conventional jumper over Jefferson in the fourth quarter as if his defender wasn't even there. One time when Keith Bogans found himself matched up with Nowitzki, all he could do was foul him.
"He was impressive," San Antonio's Manu Ginobili said. "We know he can score 36, but missing only two shots is what makes it really hard. He made some shots with the defense all over him. You can't control those kind of shots."
Caron Butler scored 22 points and Brendan Haywood added 10 in their playoff debuts for Dallas. Both were part of a major trade in February that turned a good Mavericks team into a much better one. They rolled into the playoffs having won eight of 10 and five straight.
"I thought we did a great job of executing our offense and getting the ball where we needed to," Butler said. "We shared the ball and did a lot of good things."
San Antonio got plenty from its stars Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker. But that was about it.
While Duncan had 27 points and eight rebounds, Ginobili scored 26 and Parker had 18 points and four assists, the rest of the club made only 10 of 26 shots.
Antonio McDyess was the only other player to crack double digits, scoring 10.
George Hill started at point guard, despite having aggravated an ankle injury Wednesday, and was scoreless with two turnovers in 18 minutes. He played just 2:31 in the second half. Richard Jefferson had four points in 32 minutes and Bogans was scoreless in 16 minutes.
The poor distribution of points was only part of the Spurs' problem.
"We didn't play focused enough," Duncan said. "We just weren't there all night."
They were outrebounded by eight and gave up 13 offensive rebounds. They had 17 turnovers, leading to 20 Dallas points. They also took just 14 free throws; Nowitzki and Dampier each took 12.
"We lost by six points and made all those mistakes," Ginobili said. "That's the good side of the story, that we really can improve."
The Spurs took a short flight home to sleep in their own beds and get to work on a new game plan at their headquarters. They have some time to figure things out as Game 2 isn't until Wednesday night in Dallas.
"We don't care what they throw at us," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "For us, it's all about our mental and physical approach to the game. Mentally when we're right, we're hard to beat."
The game was tight the first 2½ quarters, with Dallas leading most of the time. Then San Antonio edged ahead and the lead swapped hands a few times.
Nowitzki helped the Mavs start to pull away with a 7-0 run all on his own. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich countered by having Roger Mason Jr. foul Dampier on the next three possessions.
"We hoped he would miss free throws rather than Dirk killing us the way he was," Popovich said.
Dampier went 1 of 2 on his first two trips. Fans figured out the Hack-a-Damp routine and booed it the third time, then cheered when Dampier made them both. Popovich scrapped it then, too.
The Spurs tightened their defense on Nowitzki after that, but he simply turned into a distributor, moving the ball into areas vacated by the extra guys who came after him. Jason Terry and Kidd each cashed in 3-pointers that helped Dallas eventually go ahead by 12 late in the fourth quarter.
"You pick your poison and whatever you do, you try to do it well," Popovich said. "Dirk got the best of whatever we tried to do with him tonight. We tried a lot of different things, but he beat them all."
- Nowitzki made his final 74 free throws in the regular season, so the 12 for 12 was no surprise.
- The Spurs are considered an old team. But the Mavericks are older, both their starting five (32.6 years to 31.2) and their overall roster (30.3 to 27.8).
- Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was battling a weak voice because of a cold. "I'm trying to find the right frequency when it fires and it works," he said before the game.