Rarely is the extraordinary regarded with such nonchalance as when Dirk Nowitzki takes the microphone. But after yet another statistically superior performance — a game-high 14 rebounds and 28 points (would’ve been more but for a few shots that freakishly bounced out after being all but submerged within the rim’s circumference) — he seemed determined to make the remarkable seem routine.
“We did a good job hanging in there,” Nowitzki said in his practiced, yet casual, monotone.
In fact, Nowitzki has done a better than good job over the years. In this, his 13th NBA season, he ranks among the most reliably productive performers in basketball history. Though just six weeks from his 33rd birthday, Nowitzki seems undiminished by age. It occurs that he might have the greatest step-back jumper ever. He’s 7 feet tall. You can crowd him, get in his face and make him shoot off balance. But the ball still goes in.
Since becoming a starter in 1999, Nowitzki has never played fewer than 73 games. For 11 consecutive seasons now, he has averaged better than 21 points per game. This puts him in very select company, according to STATS LLC, one of only 10 players, to wit: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Jerry West and Dominique Wilkins. That becomes an even more exclusive club when you include the fact Nowitzki has also averaged no fewer than seven rebounds: Jabbar, Malone, Shaquille, Olajuwon.
But I’ve come to bury Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks, not to praise them — or at least, not overly so. Yes, they won Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on the road against the Lakers. Yes, Nowitzki — with 11 points in the fourth quarter — was the most efficient player on the court. (It’s worth noting here that Kobe Bryant had a crucial turnover and an inside miss in the last minute of play.) And, yes, as Nowitzki pointed out, the Mavericks showed enormous, if uncharacteristic, resiliency in coming back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit.
“We held them to 15 points in the fourth quarter,” he said proudly.
Actually, it was 16. But let me not quibble, as Nowitzki’s satisfaction was certainly justified. What’s more, the Mavericks’ fourth quarter perfectly reflected the thinking of their coach, Rick Carlisle, who marked the dry-erase board with pregame admonitions to be tough, defend and play vigorously through every second of each possession.
In other words, all those things the Mavs are not known to do. For one night against the Lakers, they did it — especially Jason Kidd, Dallas’ other future Hall of Famer. Not only did he tally his usual 11 assists, he bothered the hell out of Bryant in that fourth quarter.
A team doesn’t get its DNA from its second-best player, though. A team’s identity is inextricably linked to its best. And it doesn’t matter if the Mavs are coached by Don Nelson, Avery Johnson or Carlisle, their best player is Nowitzki. With Kidd, he makes them a beautiful, fluid offensive team. Just the same, amid all this beauty, you can see why the Mavericks always seem to be a little less than their expectations.
I cite two instances from Monday’s game. In the second quarter, Derek Fisher drove past Tyson Chandler into the lane. There was a distinct moment during which Nowitzki had a choice. He could rotate to the ball, a 7-footer stepping to a 6-1 guard, and defend, or, if need be, issue a foul to be remembered. Or he could do nothing. Nowitzki did nothing. Unless watching qualifies as doing something. Fisher’s unmolested, uncontested layup made the score 49-42.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Lamar Odom — using an excuse of a head-fake — blew by Nowitzki on the baseline for a reverse layup. Made it look so easy.
Am I picking on Nowitzki? Yes, of course.
But is he the kind of guy who leads a team to a championship, which, after all has been Dallas’ stated goal since he arrived? No. I don’t think so.
“We gave it away,” Phil Jackson said. “I’m not so sure Dallas didn’t outplay us, but I just felt like we gave it away.”
This is the Lakers being the Lakers. Chicago and Oklahoma City dropped opening games at home, too. Jackson’s team should know better by now, of course. But the Lakers’ shortcomings should not exonerate the Mavericks or their best player.
The postseason has not been particularly kind to Dallas. The Mavs have been upset by Golden State in the first round and by Miami in the Finals. But now the reputation of the franchise and its franchise player rest, in some measure, on their prospect of upsetting the Lakers. It’s a beautiful game, especially as played by Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki. But there’s more to it than trading baskets.