In Game Four of the Finals, Dirk Nowitzki, battling the flu, played just 39:09. That was the fewest minutes he's played in a game in more than two weeks. If his illness is still bothering him, the Mavericks might have to work with their star filling a diminished role again tonight.
That could be particularly troublesome for Dallas, considering the Heat has dominated with Nowitzki on the bench.
Even if Nowitzki is completely healthy, the minutes he sits will be pivotal. Here are a few suggestions for the Mavericks to minimize the damage in however much time they have to play without Dirk:
Protect the ball
The Mavericks typically don't turn the ball over much, but they have 12 turnovers, including four by Jason Kidd, in 49 possessions with Nowitzki on the bench. Directly, Nowitzki takes care of the ball very well. Indirectly, his presence creates lanes for Dallas to make safe passes.
Without him, the familiarity that helps the Mavericks move the ball falls apart. That's a big reason the Heat, the NBA's most efficient fast-break team, has scored so much better with Nowitzki out.
Shoot more two-pointers
With Nowitzki on the court, his teammates are 19-for-57 (33 percent) on three-pointers. Without him, the Mavericks are 3-for-11 (27 percent). That difference is even more pronounced when you consider J.J. Barea, who's 1-for-10 on three-pointers in this series, has played just a few seconds without Nowitzki on the court and hasn't attempt a shot in that span.
In particular, Jason Kidd (0-for-3) and Peja Stojakovic (0-for-3), have struggled from beyond the arc without Dirk.
Take the load off Shawn Marion
Playing 28 minutes with Nowitzki on the bench, Marion is shooting 5-of-15. Even adjusting for minutes played without Nowitzki, no other Maverick has taken nearly that many shots with Dirk on the bench.
More than most of his teammates, Marion doesn't need Nowitzki's presence to facilitate his offense. Marion can put the ball on the floor and post up.
But he needs help.
Keep Jason Terry active
In Game Four, Jason Terry shot 3-of-3 with Nowitzki on the bench. In the three previous games combined, Terry shot 2-of-4 without Nowitzki.
For most of the playoffs, Terry has been more aggressive while Nowitzki rests. After all, besides Nowitzki, Terry is the team's most prolific offensive threat.
Dallas can't afford for him to drift offensively in those minutes Nowitzki sits, like he did in the first three games of the Finals.
Play Brendan Haywood more
The Mavericks' offensive staple, the pick-and-roll, works whether or not Nowitzki is involved. Obviously, when he's involved, he's an incredible scorer with good hands. When he's not involved, his presence makes it harder for Miami to send help defense.
But when Nowitzki rests, the pick-and-roll gets bogged down. Haywood--unlike Tyson Chandler, who created a smaller percentage of his own shots in the regular season than any other player--has a solid back-to-the-basket game. That's a relatively simple offense for the Mavericks to run that will limit passing, and therefore, turnovers.
Play J.J. Barea more
Same idea as playing Haywood. Barea, who can take almost anyone off the dribble, can run more isolation plays.
Plus, there are ancillary benefits of giving Kidd a break while Nowitzki rests, because that would mean Kidd could play more minutes with Nowitzki.
Kidd has become a good spot-up three-point shooter. Barea, who is 1-for-10 from beyond the arc this series, has forced too many three-point attempts. Many of those looks, though, would be better shots for Kidd.
If Barea took some of Kidd's minutes with Nowitzki on the bench, Barea could drive to the basket more. That might prove more difficult without Nowitzki spacing the floor, but the risk of a turnover lowers in that type of isolation offense.
Keep Peja Stojakovic off the court
With Nowitzki on the bench, the pace of the game has increased from 84.0 to 91.6. Stojakovic couldn't keep up, committing four fouls in 18 minutes. Rick Carlisle was right to bench him.
Double-team LeBron James
The Heat would clearly benefit from a more aggressive LeBron James, and maybe Miami will attempt to get him going while Nowitzki rests.
With Nowitzki on the bench, LeBron has attempted a field goal on 20.3 percent of his offensive possessions. With Nowitzki on the court, that number drops to 17.6 percent.
Not only does he shoot more, LeBron is ultra-effective offensively with Nowitzki on the bench, shooting 10-of-12, including 4-of-5 on three-pointers. He also has six assists in 28 minutes.
If LeBron gets back on track--something the Mavericks should avoid at almost any cost--it wouldn't surprise me to see his resurgence begin during Nowitzki's rest.
Hope Miami continues to miss free throws
As scary as this is, the Heat could fairly easily have a bigger advantage with Nowitzki on the bench. Miami just had to make more than 4-of-12 free throws.
Wade and Bosh are each just 2-for-5 from the free-throw line with Nowitzki on the bench, and LeBron is 0-for-2.
In some ways, this solution is as attainable as the rest. Without Nowitzki on the court, there's little more the Mavericks can do than pray.
Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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