At 7’0″, 240 pounds, Dirk Nowitzki is known internationally for one of the most unstoppable shots in all of basketball: That infamous and deadly step-back jumper. He’s near automatic with it when he decides to employ the weapon, unleashing a hail of echoing snaps of twine at will.
It’s a shot Nowitzki has perfected, with a unique flair that creates space which allows him to use his incredible height and reach, making the step-back even more unguardable than it typically is.
First, Dirk uses his body to back down his defender into the preferred position, forcing his opposition into a low, wide stance on his heels. The the future Hall of Famer will suddenly turn and rise simultaneously, reaching his full height, and begin the fatality maneuver.
As he squares up his shoulders to the basket, and positions his hands — one gently cupping the underside of the ball in a cradle, the other 90 degrees to the side as a guide not unlike a firearm sight — Dirk leaps up and slightly back, kicking out his right knee.
Reaching the top of the jump shot, Nowitzki has now created space away from his defender, both laterally and vertically. He now has a clear line of sight, alone, above and beyond any chance of blocking the shot. When he’s feeling it, Dirk’s step-back jumper is so un-blockable that it led me to attempt to dream up a way it could be stopped. This was all I could come up with.
Dirkus-Circus aside, there is one defender that has pestered Nowitzki like none other, one man with the ability to disrupt Dirk’s routine to the point of frustration that he loses his rhythm so badly that it causes him to lose his composure.
That man is Andrei Kirilenko.
AK-47 is one of a few basketball players proficient and intelligent enough to guard all five positions on the floor, a strategy Jerry Sloan used to the Utah Jazz’s advantage when facing an opponent with a particularly troublesome offensive player.
Kirilenko studies his assignments closely, looking for tendencies he can exploit. In Nowitzki’s case, Andrei realized that once Dirk had the ball in his hands it was likely too late to effectively end the routine that leads to a basket as often as not, so AK-47 would shadow Dirk, fronting him, denying him the ball.
This had the effect of enraging Dirk, since Kirilenko would practically be crawling all up inside Nowitzki’s jersey as he followed him around the floor. Dirk wants, nay needs that ball. Everyone on the floor, sidelines, arena and watching from afar knows it. He’s the man who can erase a deficit or finish you off with a few consecutive possessions, if allowed.
From the NBA to international play, Nowitzki and Kirilenko have battled back and forth with scintillating fury, resulting in many of the most emotionally charged matchups to be found in the 2000s. Few can get Dirk’s goat like Andrei.
In March of 2008 the Utah Jazz were in the midst of a tense playoff run in the Western Conference when Dirk and the Mavericks came to town.
The Jazz jumped out to an early 19-6 lead, with AK-47 asserting his will over Dirk, when Nowitzki had had enough.
Kirilenko would make the two free throws after the flagrant-1 call, then leave the game for x-rays on his hip. He would later return for the Jazz’s playoff run that spring, but now-deceased owner of the Jazz, Larry H. Miller was not pleased.
He gets called ‘Dirty Dirk’ and stuff like that, and I’ve actually been quite an admirer of Dirk, but that was really disappointing to me. Who’s kidding who? That was a flagrant-2, and he should have been ejected.
The Jazz rarely call the NBA front office to complain about a foul or game result, or other potential in-game goof up by officials, but they felt like this situation warranted another look.
We don’t do that very often, I don’t think the league considers us crybabies. But that was pretty brutal, that’s the kind of thing that can really hurt a player. You look at this stretch, this week, and we’ve Phoenix tomorrow, and we’re home against Denver, which is a crucial game for us, and then we got four games in five nights on the road.
It never comes at a good time, but Andrei has been helping us, and to take that tool away from Jerry [Sloan] and the team, it, uh, really ticks me off. -Larry H. Miller, March 4, 2008
Andrei Kirilenko would, however, have the next laugh.
Coming into EnergySolutions Arena on December 26, 2008, the 17-12 Dallas Mavericks were staring down victory without effort, as Jerry Sloan’s Jazz were sans Paul Millsap, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Forced to field a starting five of Deron Williams, CJ Miles, Ronnie Brewer, Kirilenko and Kosta Koufos, Jazz fans went ahead and penciled in an “L” for the evening.
But Andrei Kirilenko had other ideas. He wasted no time going after the Mavs’ ace, denying Dirk the easy win by keeping him from ever gaining momentum. When Nowitzki was able to get the ball in his hands, Kirilenko crowded him so closely that Dirk was left with little choice but to flail his extremities about to try and shake his Russian blanket off.
That led to this, Nowitzki’s first fit of the evening.
Aiming to start the fourth quarter with a flurry, Dirk nailed a 19-footer bringing the Mavs to within 10, a very doable deficit for the likes of Nowitzki. But already frustrated by Kirilenko’s relentless dogging, Dirk would be ejected after another tenacious defender from Utah brought on technical number two. Matt Harpring would finish what Andrei Kirilenko started this night.
One of the more underrated matchup battles of the last era of NBA basketball is highlighted by Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko. Fans drooled on schedules when Dirk v. Kirilenko approached. You always knew it would be a tightly contested war to an often bitter finish when this pair lined up at center court for the tip.
Salut, you two. Thank you for the memories.
Editor’s Note: Clint is a practiced purveyor of basketball tales for such stalwarts as ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, the Utah Jazz and many independent establishments, currently contributing at PurpleAndBlues.com. Twitter troublemaker at @Clintonite33, accredited illustrator, attentive single father and frequent accidental celebrity stalker.