Then the Spurs finally tightened up their defense. So Nowitzki turned into a distributor, passing to teammates in the areas vacated by the extra man running at him.
Nowitzki could do no wrong Sunday night, carrying the Dallas Mavericks to a 100-94 win over the rival Spurs in Game 1 of their first-round series.
"He was unbelievable," San Antonio's Tim Duncan said.
Nowitzki made 12 of 14 shots, including all five he took in the second half, was 12 of 12 on free throws and finished with 36 points.
Although Nowitzki was credited with only one assist, he set plenty of baskets in motion by passing to someone who then passed to someone else for an easy bucket.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Nowitzki's dominance is that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went to a "Hack-a-Damp" strategy just to get the ball away from him. Right after a 7-0, all-Nowitzki run that, as it turned out, put Dallas ahead for good midway through the third quarter, San Antonio fouled Erick Dampier on three straight possessions. He made 4 of 6 free throw attempts, so Popovich had to scrap that, too.
"We hoped he would miss free throws rather than Dirk killing us the way he was," Popovich said.
The Spurs slowed Nowitzki in the first round last year by swarming him with two and sometimes three defenders. He was expecting it again this series and practically begged them to bring it on with the way he attacked whoever was covering him.
He drove on Antonio McDyess and shot over Matt Bonner. There was a heave over McDyess and Richard Jefferson that was flung at the basket in hopes of getting a foul called; there was no whistle, but there was a basket. Nowitzki made a conventional jumper over Jefferson in the fourth quarter as if his defender wasn't even there. One time when Keith Bogans found himself matched up with Nowitzki, all he could do was foul him.
"Sometimes," Nowitzki said, "you have one of those nights where the basket is big."
Caron Butler scored 22 points and Brendan Haywood added 10 in their playoff debuts for Dallas. Both were part of a major trade in February that turned a good Mavericks team into a much better one. They rolled into the playoffs having won eight of 10 and five straight.
Jason Kidd added 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds for the Mavericks, and Dampier had five points, 12 rebounds and lots of bruises from bumping against Tim Duncan.
"I thought we did a great job of executing our offense and getting the ball where we needed to," Butler said. "We shared the ball and did a lot of good things."
San Antonio got plenty from its stars Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- but that was about it. While Duncan had 27 points and eight rebounds, Ginobili scored 26 and Parker had 18 points and four assists, the rest of the club made only 10 of 26 shots.
McDyess was the only other player to crack double digits, scoring 10.
George Hill started at point guard, despite having aggravated an ankle injury Wednesday, and was scoreless with two turnovers in 18 minutes. He played just 2:31 in the second half. Jefferson had four points in 32 minutes and Bogans was scoreless in 16 minutes.
The poor distribution of points was only part of the Spurs' problem.
"We didn't play focused enough," Duncan said. "We just weren't there all night."
They were outrebounded by eight and gave up 13 offensive boards. They had 17 turnovers, leading to 20 Dallas points. They also took just 14 free throws; Nowitzki and Dampier each took 12.
"We lost by six points and made all those mistakes," Ginobili said. "That's the good side of the story, that we really can improve."
The Spurs took a short flight home to sleep in their own beds and get to work on a new game plan at their headquarters. They have some time to figure things out as Game 2 isn't until Wednesday night in Dallas.
"We don't care what they throw at us," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "For us, it's all about our mental and physical approach to the game. Mentally when we're right, we're hard to beat."