This column was written during the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship, and it appeared in The Japan Times on Aug. 22, 2006.

Battle of NBA stars a big draw

By Ed Odeven

HIROSHIMA — Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki provide the headline attraction for Monday afternoon’s 4 p.m. game here.

Both are NBA All-Star forwards. Gasol collects a lofty paycheck from the Memphis Grizzlies. Nowitzki’s millions come from eccentric Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s bank account.

Both giants provide their respective teams, Spain and Germany, incredible exposure on the national and international levels. And both players do the little things exceptionally well.

Nowitzki had a poor shooting game Sunday in his team’s 80-56 runaway win over Zealand, finishing 3-for-13 from the field at the Hiroshima Prefectural Sports Center. But really, who cares? He grabbed eight rebounds, dished out a game-high five assists and made two steals.

That performance came a day after he lit up the scoreboard for 27 points against Japan, impressing thousands of partisan fans in the process. In doing so, he got his fair share of claps, oohs and aahs, even though they were rooting for Team Japan, after all, but nevertheless were impressed with the German fellow’s brilliance.

But on this day nobody was more impressed with Nowitzki’s basketball IQ and unselfish play than German coach Dirk Bauermann.

“He just figured out a way to help this team win the game,” the coach was saying in the postgame press conference.

“He did the other things.”

The coach, of course, was referring to Nowitzki’s defensive effort, his tenacity (10.5 on a scale of 1 to 10) at both ends of the floor, his unselfish play (many well-known shooters continue to take shot after shot after shot in the hope that it’ll cure their slump, but not Dirk in this victory) and his precise passing.

“He didn’t have a great game, but he had a good game,” Bauermann added.

And sometimes that’s enough. The truly great players understand that sometimes they must not try to force things. It’s better to help the team shine than to demand the spotlight and stumble in the process.

It’s the notion here that Nowitzki will bounce back with 25 points against Spain.

Others agree.

“I’m sure you’re going to see Dirk Nowitzki’s vintage game (tomorrow),” Bauermann predicted.

Which means 18 to 20 shot attempts, 10 or more makes, and many of the variety that only make one emphatic sound as they sail through the bottom of the net: swish!

Gasol, meanwhile, returned to the hardwood Sunday night against Panama with his Spanish teammates a day after his productive outing in an 86-70 victory over New Zealand. His numbers: 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal were respectable numbers, but not the kind that scream “All-Star, All-Star,” when you stare at the stat sheet.

But wait. It’s just one game. Gasol didn’t have to score 40 in this game to look like a star. He puts 20-plus points on the board day after day during the NBA’s long 82-game season.

Collectively, the Spanish team, which is ranked fifth in the world, exhibited just how balanced, deep and dangerous it is against the Tall Blacks.

Juan Carlos Navarro, whose nickname “La Bomba” was given to him because of his floating layups (or bombs) is an impressive scorer as well. He had 16, too. His free-flowing, acrobatic style of play could’ve produced 25 points, but in the concept of the team game, it wasn’t needed, not when four other Spaniards picked up five points or more, including Alex Mumbru who had 12.

Mumbru did it the easy — or hard (take your pick) — way. He drilled all three of his 3-point attempts. Talk about maximizing your shot opportunities.

Another 16-point hombre was Jorge (don’t call him the Garbage Man) Garbajosa, who hit 6-for-12 from the field. He’s another brilliant perimeter performer on Pepu Hernandez’s deep roster. He’s a mobile, 206-cm forward who is unafraid of banging inside against bigger, stronger centers or stepping outside and curling off screens to score points.

But Gasol is clearly the pulse of this Spanish team, the motivator for a group that looks to continue its climb to the top of the world rankings. He is constantly on the go during a game, setting up shop in the low post, roaming the baseline, raising his arms to remind his teammates that he has a shooter’s touch and then using those same long arms to get in a shooter’s face on the other end of the court.

Gasol’s keen instincts and timing lead to blocked shots, tipped passes and steals, and help spark Spain’s transition to run-and-gun offense.

As this article comes to a close, Spain is leading Panama 28-13 in the second quarter. Indeed, it shows that Spain is a force when it plays at its top level.

Spain vs. Germany will be a great matchup Monday as Nowitzki and Gasol lead their clubs into a game that basketball junkies around the world will watch with great interest.

The outcome is a toss-up in my opinion. But this much is certain: Basketball fans are in for a treat Monday.

You can thank Gasol and Nowitzki for that.