Nowitzki, Mavs Forced To Limp To Finish

LOS ANGELES - Dirk Nowitzki was shooting jumpers at Staples Center on Friday morning, wearing a huge brace on his sprained left ankle, when Tyronn Lue stepped up to contest one of his shots. Nowitizki released his jump shot and Lue lunged forward, eventually falling to the ground after bumping into Nowitzki.

It just so happened that Nowitzki shot the ball near the same spot where Allen Iverson nailed a jumper over Lue in overtime of Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals and infamously stared down Lue and stepped over him. When he saw Lue laying on the court, Nowitzki looked down at Lue, lifted his leg over him and said, "Wait. Let me step ... over ... you."

Who would've thought that I'd go from winning the MVP to worrying about making the playoffs a year later? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

After Nowitzki made his Iverson-like, exaggerated step, Lue lifted himself from the floor and the two shared a good laugh. These might be some tough and stressful times for Western Conference teams still struggling to make it to the playoffs - believe it or not, with about 10 days left only two teams (New Orleans and the Los Angeles Lakers) out West have clinched berths - but at least these guys are still having a little fun.

Even as teams in the West are stepping over each other on a daily basis.

The Mavericks, however, weren't in much of a laughing mood after their 112-108 loss to the Lakers later that night, but they still have a chance to get back on track this afternoon in Phoenix, where Dallas hopes to improve its abysmal 1-11 record against teams with winning records since acquiring Jason Kidd. That number is 0-11 against teams that currently hold playoff spots in the West. Ouch.

"It's not getting any easier," Nowitzki said. "We've been right there the last three, four weeks, especially on the road. It's been tough."

Yes, the Mavs' losses have mostly been close, but as the saying goes, this ain't horseshoes.

Nowitzki, the reigning most valuable player, is making a valiant effort in playing less than two weeks after sustaining a high ankle sprain on March 23 against San Antonio. He ditches the hulking brace during the games, but he admitted that he won't be at 100 percent for the remainder of the season and playoffs - if Dallas makes it that far.

"At some point I'm going to stop talking about it. It's something that I have to fight through right now," Nowitzki said. "If it was November right now, I wouldn't be playing. But it's not November. It's down the stretch and we got to make the palyoffs. So I have to suck up some stuff and play through it."

How would you like it if I stepped over you, Dirk? (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/File/Ronald Martinez)

Nowitzki hasn't dealt with any swelling in his ankle, but the soreness has ranged from terrible to unbearable. "We don't know if he's going to be significantly improved as the season goes on," Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson said. "The only thing that really can heal this particular injury is really, total rest. He's just not going to get that right now. It may be soemthing that won't get well until after the season."

He returned on Comeback Night last Wednesday - along with Gilbert Arenas, Pau Gasol and Elton Brand - to score 18 points and help the Mavericks get back some of their swagger with a win against the Golden State Warriors. He scored 27 points against the Lakers, but got abused on the defensive end with Lamar Odom and Gasol attacking him inside on almost every possession. Odom made 12 of 14 shots and finished with a season-high 31 points.

"I didn't have great lateral movement before," Nowitzki said. "Now it's definitely all gone."

Nowitzki matching up against Amare Stoudemire this afternoon could be really ugly. But the Mavericks will have to get big time performances from Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Kidd if they hope to beat the Suns and eventually secure a spot in the postseason. Howard, Terry and Kidd showed some much-needed aggression while Nowitzki was out, and they will have to carry the load with Nowitzki likely unable to carry them as he has in the past.

Howard has played particularly great basketball, averaging 29 points over the past six games. He scored 23 points against the Lakers, but was held to just two points in the final period when he had a costly error in judgement. He picked up a technical foul for throwing his headband after he failed to get a foul call.

Johnson chastised Howard for losing his composure, but it was quite baffling after the game that Howard wore a custom-made shirt with his initials on the front and "STUPID" on the back. Stupid? Was he being prophetic? I asked him what he meant by that shirt, Howard said, "You tell me."

I was so confused, I couldn't think of a follow up question.

Josh, that was STUPID! You talking about my shirt, Coach? No, I'm talking about tossing your headband and giving the Lakers an extra point in a game we need! You sure you're not talking about my shirt? (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

The Mavericks have to figure something out soon, because time is running out on the season. It's crazy that a team that won a league-best 67 games last season and really didn't make a dramatic change in personnel - other than adding a future Hall of Fame point guard?!? - is still struggling just to get in. And, they can't count on the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets to keep blowing games to help them qualify for the postseason (although Denver sure helped out in a major way by losing at home to the Sacramento Kings last night. What's up with the that?).

"I haven't really been a part of this in awhile," Nowitzki said of the Mavericks' position as an underdog. "We got to fight through it. It's no time to give up now. We have a few more games against some tough teams I hope we can pull those out and get some momentum, get some confidence before the playoffs. I hope we can get in and be a very dangerous team."

By Michael Lee |  April 6, 2008; 8:12 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Dallas is done. They blew their window of opportunity the last two years. Trading for Kidd was a desperate act by a desperate team!

Posted by: MFMFFL | April 6, 2008 2:53 PM

Mavs always choke. They're going to miss the playoffs. Watch.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 6, 2008 2:57 PM

Yeah, they sure looked like a team waiting to roll over and die when they were getting pounded by the Suns.

Oh, wait ...

Denver is the team that's going to be on the outside looking in. They've lost two straight games to lottery teams, have 4 games remaining against likely playoff teams (including one against Golden State who they're battling for the 8th spot) and the next game in which they play 5 minutes of solid defense will be the first one all season.

Posted by: kalorama | April 7, 2008 10:43 AM

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