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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Mavs need Nowitzki to be better than good ... or else

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MIAMI -- Dallas can beat Miami. Once, I mean. Dallas can beat Miami once. I'm positive of that. Four times in seven games? Excuse me -- four times in six games? No, I'm not positive of that.

But the 2011 NBA Finals don't have to be a dismantling. Dallas could win a game or two. Maybe three. Hell, it's conceivable Dallas could win four. Doubt it, but maybe.

But there's one condition that must be met for Dallas to win, and I mean for Dallas to win even once:

Dirk Nowitzki has to be one of the best two players on the court.

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He doesn't have to be the best. Not necessarily. That would help, but it's not mandatory, and most of the time it won't be possible. In games featuring LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Nowitzki would be hard-pressed to be the best player on the court four times in seven games. Wade is one of the best guards ever, and James is arguably the most physically gifted basketball player of all-time.

But Nowitzki is historically great in his own right, and for Dallas to stand up to the Heat's ridiculous assemblage of talent, he'll have to stand up to either James or Wade. Doesn't matter which one. Be better than James. Or be better than Wade.

Be better than neither?

You get something like Game 1, when the Heat won 92-84 in a game devoid of serious drama. It was close at times, but those times were in the first three quarters. In the fourth? Not close.

That's how this series will unfold unless Nowitzki gets a lot better -- or James and/or Wade gets a lot worse. And that's unlikely, seeing how James and Wade were mediocre, by their standards, in Game 1. Almost anyone else in basketball puts up 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists, and you're tempted to write sonnets about his splendor. LeBron James does it, and your first thought is, "Only 24 points? Huh."

As for Wade, he had 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Those are really nice numbers. For most people. For Wade? In the NBA Finals? Where he averaged 34.7 ppg, 7.8 ppg and 3.8 apg the last time he was here, in 2006? Eh. We've seen better. Repeatedly.

But Wade and James were much better than Nowitzki in Game 1. And you know something? Chris Bosh wasn't far behind. Nowitzki finished with a game-high 27 points, but he was 7-of-18 from the floor. He had eight rebounds, but none on the offensive glass, where both coaches said this game was decided. He had two assists, but two turnovers. He was good, OK? He was good. He was fine. But good -- friggin' fine -- isn't going to cut it, not when James and Wade are better than that, and not when Bosh is putting up 19 points, nine rebounds (five offensive), three assists and zero turnovers. All things considered, Bosh and Nowitzki were about even in Game 1. James and Wade were decidedly better.

Given that, I'm surprised it was as close as it was.

Thing is, I'm not sure Nowitzki can be much better than he was Tuesday. I've seen him do it, of course. I saw it in the Western Conference finals, when he scored 48 in one game against Oklahoma City and 40 in another. But Miami isn't Oklahoma City. Wily Heat veteran Udonis Haslem isn't clueless Thunder athlete Serge Ibaka.

"He's a unique player," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Nowitzki after the game. "He's got to be denied the ball virtually everywhere on the floor."

Dirk has to be better than making just seven of his 18 shots for the Mavericks to win. (Getty Images)  
Dirk has to be better than making just seven of his 18 shots for the Mavericks to win. (Getty Images)  
Sounds good. What's the problem?

"Haslem is a guy that has the wherewithal to do that."

Oh.

What's more, Nowitzki suffered a torn tendon on his left middle finger during Game 1, and while he doesn't shoot left-handed, he doesn't shoot with his feet, either. A shooter needs both hands. Nowitzki will still make shots -- he made two in the fourth quarter Tuesday night -- but it stands to reason he won't make shots as efficiently with an injured finger. Nowitzki said he'll probably have to wear a splint the rest of the series.

"It was just a freaky play," Nowitzki said of the injury. "Bosh got a bounce pass and I stepped in. I thought I stripped him clean, and then I kind of looked down and I couldn't straighten out my finger anymore."

Even so, Nowitzki doesn't have to play pinball with the scoreboard to be one of the best two players on the court. He doesn't have to score 40. But he can't miss 11 of 18 shots from the floor. And he can't have just two assists, though some of that is on his teammates. To beat Miami, the Mavericks need Nowitzki to be better than he was Tuesday night -- and they need several of his teammates to be better, too.

Shawn Marion was sensational, with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists on a night he had his hands full defensively with James. Jason Kidd and Jason Terry combined for six 3-pointers. DeShawn Stevenson added two more. Carlisle would probably take that support from those four players, every time, and like his chances. But he'd need more from Jose Juan Barea than two points on eight shots in 18 minutes. And he'd need more from Brendan Haywood than three made free throws, three missed free throws and one missed dunk in 14 minutes. And Peja Stojakovic? Good grief, Peja. After scoring 21 points in the Game 4 elimination of the Lakers, he has totaled 25 points in six games since, going 10-for-35 from the floor.

Dallas isn't a one-man team. That's never been the Mavericks' deal this season. But on a roster full of players who have been great -- Kidd is a Hall of Famer, Marion and Terry have scored more than 15,000 career points, and Stojakovic finished fourth in MVP voting in 2004 -- only Nowitzki is still great. There are games he could play in, opponents he could play against, when this balanced Dallas bunch wouldn't need him to be great to win.

These are not those games. Miami is not that opponent.

And so Nowitzki faces that cruel test that confronts only the best of the best. It is not enough that he has been great throughout his career, or even throughout this postseason. He must be great right now, or the Mavericks won't win this thing.

I mean the 2011 NBA Finals. I also mean a single game.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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