MINNEAPOLIS — In a mostly empty corridor at the Target Center, Dirk Nowitzki shuffled side to side, a resistance band around his ankles, his eyes directed at the ceiling. His long, thin frame seemed to nearly fill the space, and he was in his own world.
Side to side, back and forth, not a teammate in sight. There was no notice of anyone who passed, scrambling comically to get out of his path, no acknowledgement he might be in the way.
Such solitary preparation has marked Nowitzki’s season of late. He sat out four games in late January, working on conditioning and getting his sore knees in shape. It was a single-minded crusade for the 33-year-old forward, who was facing the blunt reality of what appeared to be a slide from last season’s excellence. Before his break, Nowitzki was averaging 17.5 points — respectable, but not up to his high standards. Since returning on Jan. 29, he’s averaged 20.0 points, and in the past four games that mark has improved to 28.0.
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With each passing night, Dirk has looked more like the Dirk of last season, and his performance in Friday’s 104-97 victory over the Timberwolves put to rest any doubts that the 11-time All-Star can’t get back into form. He finished the night with 33 points, a season high, and shot 57.9 percent from the field.
“That is the Dirk that I know,” Wolves forward Kevin Love said after the game. “That is definitely the vintage Dirk I’ve been watching for how many years he’s been playing now.”
After losing three of four games — all with Nowitzki in the lineup — Friday’s win had to come as a relief to Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. It may have been a physical and at times messy game, but the Mavericks dominated, avoiding a season sweep by the Timberwolves. Carlisle attributed much of the win to Nowitzki’s performance, especially to his overall shooting and timely 3-pointers.
“He just continues to get better,” Carlisle said.
That’s not the kind of thing coaches often say about players with 13 years of experience in the league. Those are the players who are supposed to be working hard, keeping up their game, going the extra mile to stay in shape. Improvement is often a concept left years in the past, but not for Nowitzki.
Sure, that improvement came after lagging performances, after swollen knees and constrained shooting. But it’s improvement nonetheless, borne out of a self-awareness that borders on brutal. Nowitzki expects excellence from himself, and failing to get results stings. He doesn’t gloss things over, and the sharp pain of how bad everything was just a few weeks ago sticks with him.
“Before, I was almost afraid to make moves,” Nowitzki said. “I was just basically a spot-up shooter.”
That self-criticism was at its most apparent earlier this week, when Nowitzki said he didn’t deserve to be named as a reserve for this year’s NBA All-Star Game. Even so, he was selected, and he said he’s happy to receive the respect of coaches around the league. It’s not that he doesn’t know what he’s capable of — Nowitzki said after Friday’s game that if he had been healthy all season, he’d have been a lock for an All-Star spot — it’s just that he both saw and felt the pain of how differently he’d been playing all season. There’s no doubt his spot on the roster was awarded in part because of his dominant season last year, when he averaged 23.0 points and won a championship, but Friday night’s performance rendered Nowitzki’s self-criticism irrelevant.
“He can shoot the lights out,” Love said. “If he decides he wants to play and play at a high level, he’s a Hall of Fame player. He was unbelievable last year, and you can tell that he’s really starting to get into a rhythm again this past week or so.”
But Nowitzki’s game shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Getting back into form is a process, and it involves more than just conditioning. In his first three games back, he scored just 10, 10 and eight points. He was still finding his touches and getting his shot back in tune, but he was also regaining the confidence he’d lost as he sat for four games on the bench, unable to contribute.
That’s why the opening minutes against Minnesota were so crucial for Nowitzki. After missing his first shot, he sunk two consecutive threes, and with point guard Jason Kidd back in the lineup with him for the first time since Jan. 19, familiarity led quickly to confidence.
“Usually if you make your first couple shots, your confidence goes up, and I just kept shooting all night,” Nowitzki said.
It was the kind of night Nowitzki needed, further proof that he’s still close to the same player he was last June. And as large as his recent struggles might loom in his mind and those of his fans, in a jam-packed post-lockout season, such struggles can be forgotten as quickly as they arise.
“Everything’s such a whirlwind,” Carlisle said. “You can’t even blink. You’ve just got to keep playing, keep concentrating.”
No doubt Nowitzki will do just that. The Mavericks have seven games between Friday and the All-Star Game, and if history is any indication, by the time Nowitzki takes the court in Orlando on Feb. 26, he’ll have the statistics to warrant it.