AT&T CENTER – “Dirk (Nowitzki) is going to score, you can’t stop that, but as long as we make him work hard, that is the goal,” said San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich after his team’s game one 90-85 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. In the first game of the series, the Spurs’ defense held Nowitzki to just 11 points in 42 minutes. A big part of the defensive effort on Nowitzki was credited to Spurs center Tiago Splitter.
“He did a good job,” said Spurs guard Tony Parker of Splitter after the game. “I think Boris (Diaw) and Tiago and the team did a good job on him.”
“As we have said many times before with Dirk, you do the best job you can,” said Popovich. “That’s what you have to live with. I thought Tiago couldn’t have done a better job. He is going to work at it no matter what. We know we can’t stop him from scoring.”
Nowitzki was held to 4-of-14 shooting on the evening, and in the time Splitter defended Nowitzki, Splitter held him to just 1-of-5 shooting.
“You know just try to be in front of him, did not (need) help much,” said Splitter after the game. “It’s like um, you just guard him and forget about the rest of the game,” continued Splitter to Project Spurs. “That’s what you do when you have to guard him.”
Nowitzki came into the game averaging 21.7 points on 16.0 shot attempts per game after the All-Star Break, while shooting 51% from the floor during that time period. The Spurs as a collective group didn’t even let him touch the ball as much as he normally does, as Nowitzki averaged 62.9 touches per game on the season, but only touched the ball 56 times in game one.
“There were some uncharacteristic misses,” said Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle after the game of Nowitzki. “I thought Dirk had some good looks and there were some that were heavily contested.”
Per the SportVU data, Nowitzki shot 2-of-7 on contested looks and 2-of-7 on uncontested looks (29% either way). As the series continues, the percentage on the uncontested looks is likely to go up to his average. However, it’s the contested looks that could have an effect on his performance in the series with Splitter defending him.
“He was very active in there,” said Tim Duncan of Splitter. “Just like they respect our shooters, we respect him very much. Tiago did a great job staying up into him, and taking away space, and making him do something else.”
When asked after the game if the Spurs’ defense did anything particular in defending him, Nowitzki, knew he would be defended heavily as one of his team’s main offensive weapons.
“Not really,” said Nowitzki on if there was anything particular the Spurs did defensively. “All night obviously, they’re not going to leave me much. We knew that coming into the series. I wasn’t going to have a ton of wide open shots. At the end, in the fourth quarter, they decided to drop me from the low side. I turned the ball over the one time, I wasn’t ready for it. The other three times we kind of swung it around.”
“But other than that,” finished Nowtizki, “all game long they kind of played me straight up. I had some decent looks, I just have to shoot better.”
Through the first three quarters, the Spurs opted to play Nowitzki 1-on-1, however in the fourth quarter, the team threw some double-team looks at Nowitzki that caught him off guard as he said above. Here’s the play where Leonard snuck around Nowtizki and forced the turnover.
Nowitzki also came in shooting 4.5 three pointers per game post All-Star Break, but the Spurs’ defense held him to just two deep looks, as he missed them both. To Splitter’s credit, he’s actually a solid defender overall. Per Synergy, he’s ranked 38th in both defending Post Ups (0.70 Points Per Possession), and at defending the pick-and-roll man (0.82 PPP). In the 7:52 minutes during the season, Splitter held Nowtizki to 5-of-10 shooting. Sunday, he was one of the most effective defenders on Nowitizki, as he held Nowitizki to 1-of-5 shooting, Diaw held him to 3-of-5 shooting, Kawhi Leonard 0-of-1 shooting, and Duncan 0-of-3 shooting. As you can see in the video below, Splitter is deceptively quick at chasing Nowitzki from one end of the floor to the other under the basket, and then getting his feet set to contest Nowitzki’s post-up. Nowitzki missed the shot that was heavily contested.
On this play, Nowitzki set a screen, rolled out for position to take a jumper, but Splitter quickly recovered, got himself set on defense, and contested another Nowitzki jumper.
As the series shifts to game two Wednesday, the odds are in favor of Nowitzki putting forth a better performance than he did Sunday. The one area where he can still be effective is on his spot-up quick jumpers after setting a screen, or running around a screen in a catch-and-shoot situation. Still, as written in the series preview, the Spurs do have a tandem in Splitter and Diaw that can effectively contest a majority of the Nowitzki’s shots.
(Stats used via NBA.com/stats, Synergy Sports, and SportVU data)