Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t do anything but laugh when he was asked about those career-high-tying 21 rebounds Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia collected during Tuesday’s 115-112 overtime win at Portland.
“He stole a good six of mine,’’ said Nowitzki, who finished with 28 points and seven rebounds. “So I would have had 13 [rebounds] and he would have had 15.”
Pachulia is tied for second in the NBA in double-doubles with 12. And that says a lot, considering Pachulia spent most of his 12-year career being a low-minutes role player.
“I think he’s a better defender and rebounder than I thought,” Nowitzki said after Thursday’s practice. “Obviously he was always a bench guy basically his entire career, and in tough moments you don’t really get to see a guy as much.
“[He’s] a tough rebounder, a tough defender, and on the offensive end he can make plays off the dribble for a big guy. He shows it, he keeps the handoff sometimes and drives and makes plays off the dribble that not a lot of big guys can do, so, yeah, he’s been the surprise of the season so far.’’
Pachulia outrebounded the Blazers’ starting lineup 21-19.
“Mainly, it’s what you’re supposed to do — rebound, go play hard, play strong,” Pachulia said. “It feels good when you win the game.”
A tip-in by Nowitzki with 6 seconds remaining sent Tuesday’s game into overtime tied 96-96. In the locker room afterward, Pachulia spotted Nowitzki standing about 10 feet away and reminded him about the lessons learned concerning the artful craft of rebounding.
“What I tell you, Dirk?” Pachulia said, referring to Nowitzki’s game-changing offensive rebound. “You just have to take your position under the rim, push the guys around. That’s exactly what he did.
“I teach him that. He can always learn something, especially from the youth. It’s never late to learn something — this guy is learning at the age of 37.”
The Mavericks also are learning about Pachulia’s capabilities after they acquired him from the Milwaukee Bucks on July 9 for a second-round draft pick.
“He’s been one of our most consistent guys,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “His game against Portland was really huge. They’re a great rebounding team, and him getting 20-plus rebounds was a major factor in that game.”
The Houston Rockets (8-11) will be without top rebounder Dwight Howard when they play the Mavericks (11-8) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at American Airlines Center. Howard isn’t playing both ends of a back-to-back due to body maintenance, and will be back in the Rockets’ lineup Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.
“He’s [Pachulia] such an important part of our defense and our offense, because on offense he’s a guy that handles the ball and is a trigger man in a lot of the situations,” Carlisle said. “And on defense, the center is the one that’s behind everybody and sees everything that’s going on, so those guys are really important as communicators.’’
With guard J.J. Barea set to miss his fourth consecutive game with a sprained right ankle, players such as Pachulia can add much-needed defense.
“I’ve said it all season, we basically got Pachulia for a second-round draft pick,” Nowitzki said. “It was a heck of a find, a heck of a deal.
“He plays hard, he’s a fighter, he’s a team guy. No matter if he doesn’t score, or if he scores a lot, he wants to be there and help the team win, [and] he’s kind of the veteran leader every team wants to have.”