CBSSports.com National Columnist

Game 2 hero Nowitzki flips Bird comparisons in his favor

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MIAMI -- For two days Rick Carlisle was a cold, inhuman monster. That's what I was thinking, or something along those lines, as the Dallas Mavericks coach was asked repeatedly about Dirk Nowitzki's injured finger and the impact it would have on Game 2.

No impact, Carlisle said. Next question?

"Not an issue," Carlisle said Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. "We're not even talking about it."

Dirk Nowitzki isn't bashful about letting Miami fans know the value of one of his Game 2 baskets. (Getty Images)  
Dirk Nowitzki isn't bashful about letting Miami fans know the value of one of his Game 2 baskets. (Getty Images)  
How callous. How clueless. But then Thursday happened, the Mavericks rallying from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter and Nowitzki improbably scoring his team's final nine points, four of them with his left hand. And Carlisle was asked again about Nowitzki's injured finger. And this time he gave some insight into his cavalier attitude of previous days.

"Look, I played with [Larry] Bird for three years when he was the best player in the world," Carlisle said. "Guys like that don't feel pain right now."

Oh.

How encouraging. How flattering.

Dirk as Bird? Sure, I've heard that comparison in recent weeks -- but not from anyone as credible as Rick Carlisle. The guy played with Bird in Boston. He coaches Nowitzki in Dallas. If anyone in the world has the insight, and the right, to squash the Dirk-as-Bird analogy, it's Rick Carlisle.

And he didn't do it. He encouraged it.

Me, I'm not here to endorse it. Dirk as Bird? In some ways, sure. They're similar shooters, similarly oblivious to pressure or pain, but Bird scored, rebounded and assisted at a higher volume. Nowitzki may well be the closest thing we've seen to Larry Bird since Bird was doing his thing a quarter-century ago, but he's not as good as Bird. I can't hear that noise, because that's crazy.

That being said ...

What we saw Thursday night was insane. It was a great player doing what only a great player can do, and doing it on the biggest stage in the most trying circumstances. NBA Finals, Game 2. Down 1-0 in the series, down 15 in the fourth quarter. Playing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. On the road.

With a torn tendon on his finger.

"I don't know how that finger felt," said Mavs guard Jason Terry, "but I know he didn't care."

Not in the final three minutes, no. Not when he was making four straight shots, scoring Dallas' final nine points, twice driving to the rim with his left hand and then finishing with his left hand. But earlier in the game? Absolutely Nowitzki cared about his finger. He wasn't the player he usually is, and not just because he missed 12 of his first 18 shots. It was the shots he chose, and the shots he didn't.

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Until the final three minutes, Nowitzki didn't attack the rim with his left, didn't try to finish with his left, and that's not his game. One of the keys to Nowitzki's brilliance is his ability -- his preference -- to use his off-hand, the left, as a dribbling, shooting weapon. But for 45 minutes of Game 2 he kept that weapon in the holster. Because that weapon was broken.

And then it wasn't.

With a minute to play Nowitzki finished a fast break with a left-handed layup, tying the score at 90. With 26.7 seconds left he drained a 3-pointer for a 93-90 lead. After Miami tied it on Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer with 24.5 seconds left, Dallas ran down the clock before giving it to Nowitzki, who drove on Chris Bosh with his left hand and floated a left-handed shot for the winning points.

Afterward, as only LeBron James can do, he tried to dismiss the toughness of Nowitzki. Tried to dismiss the pain.

"We were asked about [the injury] after Game 1, and I said it would be a nonissue," James said. "As you can tell, it has no effect on his left hand at all."

Take that for what it's worth, seeing how it came from the same guy who had chosen to celebrate Dwyane Wade's 3-pointer for an 88-75 Miami lead by throwing a two-man parade in front of the Dallas bench. Dallas saw the parade, and Dallas was ticked.

Still, anger gets you only so far in the NBA. Toughness gets you farther, and talent gets you farther still. Toughness and talent, all wrapped into the sweetest-shooting 7-foot package the game has ever seen? That'll get you the final nine points of a 15-point rally. In the final seven minutes. On the road. In the NBA Finals.

That'll get your coach saying heresy about Larry Bird.

"Yeah," Carlisle agreed when asked about Dirk-as-Bird, "I've been saying it for a long time."

OK, so maybe I'm willing to listen.


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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