By Peter Finney Jr., The Sports Xchange
NEW ORLEANS — Dirk Nowitzki is back — at least for now — and that is bad news for the New Orleans Pelicans.
In his 18 years as a pro, the Dallas forward has been the heartbeat of the Mavericks, always ready to apply his knife-shot, fallaway jumper in the fourth quarter when his team needed it the most.
Nowitzki returned to the lineup Friday night on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers after missing the previous 14 games with a sore right Achilles.
Even though Nowitzki played only 15 minutes, he made them count, going 7 of 12 from the floor for 17 points in a 90-88 victory, the Mavericks’ second straight on the road and third win in four games overall.
So when Nowitzki starts Monday night against the Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center, he figures to give New Orleans fits.
“I felt a lot better coming back (this time) than the first time (in November),” Nowitzki said. “This time we took it a little more slow. I was able to run up and down last week. I ran on the treadmill and got some good work in and played some one-on-one against some of our coaches. So I think I was way more prepared this time. I felt decent, but there’s still a long way to go.”
After the victory — only the ninth in 30 games for Dallas — Nowitzki did an additional cardio workout so that he can start ramping up his minutes.
Despite their poor record, the Mavericks have liked what they’ve seen in forward Harrison Barnes, who in Nowitzki’s absence took over the go-to role the 38-year-old German superstar had perfected during his career.
On the Mavericks’ final possession against the Clippers, Barnes assumed Nowitzki’s role as the focal point of the offense, hitting the winning mid-range jumper with 3.8 seconds left. Barnes scored six of Dallas’ final 12 points on his way to a team-high 24.
“You get the ball in the hands of your best player and you give him the opportunity to win the game,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “And that’s what Harrison did. It’s his first game-winning shot for us, and I’m predicting it’s going to be one of many.”
Barnes, a free-agency pickup from Golden State in the offseason, relishes the idea of being the Mavs’ closer, just as Nowitzki has been through the years.
“It means a lot — the confidence from the coaches, the confidence from my teammates that they trust me to take that shot,” Barnes said. “I’m just going to work as hard as I can just to continue to deliver.”
Barnes is 4 of 6 from the field in final-minute situations when shooting either to tie or take the lead. That expands to 17 of 27 in tie or lead-change situations during any time of the fourth quarter.
“He’s been fun to watch,” Nowitzki said. “We’ve run some of the same stuff that we’ve run for me for years, we run for him now — the high-post iso. He’s mastered it.”
New Orleans (11-21) is coming off two consecutive victories, the latest a 91-87 win over the Miami Heat on Friday night, Anthony Davis led the Pelicans with 28 points and 22 rebounds, and guard Jrue Holiday had 22 points and six assists.
The Pelicans held the Heat to 38 points in the second half.
“I thought we kept grinding offensively and came up with stops,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said.
The Mavericks have owned the Pelicans recently, winning seven of their last 10 games. Dallas defeated New Orleans 91-81 at American Airlines Arena on Nov. 27 as Barnes and Wesley Matthews combined for 44 points and Andrew Bogut grabbed 14 rebounds. Davis had 36 points and 13 rebounds in a losing effort for the Pelicans.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is 30-20 all time against New Orleans.