The NBA Corner: Dirk's Dominance
June 13, 2006
The Dallas Mavericks hold a 13 point lead over the Miami Heat, just six minutes away from taking a virtually insurmountable 3-0 series lead and being one win away from finally winning the first championship in franchise history. At that time, Dirk Nowitzki was easily the best player on what was about to be crowned the best team in the NBA.
Apparently, Dwyane Wade didn't get the memo.
Wade not only saved the game and his team's season that night. He also changed the complexion of the series. Dirk and the Mavs would lose four in a row and watch confetti fall engulf the Heat players.
At that moment, Wade was crowned as the now and future ruler of the NBA and Dirk, finishing his 8th season in the NBA, appeared to have let his one chance to get a ring slip through his fingers. He let the moment come to him rather than grabbing it and, because of that, Wade was able to snatch it for himself. It was Wade, not Nowitzki, that orchestrated "The Takeover."
"Fell from top ten to not mentioned at all..."
- Jay-Z ("The Takeover")
The next season, Dirk won the MVP award and led Dallas to the number one seed heading into the playoffs. A year older, a year wiser, and year spent focused on revenge, the Mavs were ready to finally ascend to the throne. And then they were defeated in the first round by the 8th seeded Golden State Warriors. From that moment forward Nowitzki, who had been described by so many adjectives like "great," "amazing," and "one-of-a-kind," was now only known by one.
It seemed as if his championship window had closed. First the Spurs made another run. Then, Pau Gasol arrived in Southern California and the Lakers once again owned the West. On the other side of the continent, the Celtics had reloaded in a major way and LeBron James was destroying the competition. Meanwhile, the Mavs roster evolved and, in the process, appeared to be going backwards.
The season after the Golden State debacle, Dallas managed to secure the number 7 slot in the playoffs, only to be blown away in five games by the younger, faster and hungrier New Orleans Hornets. In 2009, the Mavericks finally managed to return to the 2nd round but were quickly dispatched by the Denver Nuggets, also in five games. They reverted to recent form last year, finishing with the 2nd seed in the West but losing in six to the San Antonio Spurs.
In the four years following their epic collapse in the Finals, the Mavs failed to return to the conference finals and didn't even make it out of the first round three of those four times. As such, before this postseason began it was not a surprise when many (myself included) picked the Portland Trailblazers to upset the third-seeded Mavericks in the first round.
When Brandon Roy scored 18 points in the final quarter of Game Four to erase a 23-point deficit and lead the Blazers to a win, we were sure we picked correctly. Here, again, were the Mavericks doing what they do best: wilting under pressure. Dirk had "only" 20 points in the game and, like the crushing playoff losses of the previous five seasons, it was obvious Dallas would crumble like they always do.
We were stupid. We didn't realize that Dirk was now playing with "Ether."
"Brace yourself for the main event..."
- Nas ("Ether")
Dirk had 25 points and Jason Kidd dished out 14 assists in a Game Five victory that showed this Mavs team was different. In Game Six, a closeout game on the road, Dirk put up 33 (11-17 from the field, 11-11 from the line) and grabbed 11 boards to lead his team back into the second round. Nowitzki averaged 27/8/3 for the series. And that was just the appetizer. What happened next altered the course - and the reputation - of two franchises, at least for the near future.
The Mavericks, playing the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs for the first time since 1988, swept the two-time defending champs, capped off with a 122-86 win in Game Four, forcing Phil Jackson into (slightly) early retirement and causing L.A.'s players to openly question themselves and their teammates.
For his part, Dirk was fantastic. While his points per game dipped a little from round one to round two (27.3 to 25. 3), he grabbed a rebound-and-a-half more per game (9.3 to 7.8) and he shot the ball much more efficiently (57.4% from the field; 72.7% from 3 compared to 45.2% and 44.4%). More importantly, he put the Lakers frontcourt players into foul trouble and always seemed to hit a clutch shot to stop a run or put the game out of reach.
The man who had been written off as a choke artist and postseason underachiever clearlyoutplayed one of the best perimeter players of all time in a four-game dismantling that is still amazing almost three weeks later.
Somehow, he's elevated his game yet again in the Western Conference Finals. Through four games, he's averaging 34 points per game on 56% shooting. He's scored forty in two of the four games (48 points and 80% from the field in Game 1; 40 points and 60% from the field in Game 4) and is shooting 96% from the charity stripe. That's an important stat for a player that is averaging 13 free throws per contest. (If you take out the Game Three anomaly when he scored only 18 points and attempted only 3 foul shots, his average improves to 39 points and 16 free throws per game.)
In his 13th season in the league, Dirk Nowitzki has finally put it all together. In his younger years, he was seen as a 7-foot shooter that couldn't really create off the dribble and shied away from contact. He was considered soft, one-dimensional on offense and a liability on defense. As his career progressed, he started to add other attributes that would make him tougher to stop and also gained enough experience to be a fairly capable defender. Now he's virtually unstoppable on offense, unleashing a variety of unguardable off-balance, one-footed jump shots that he makes look easy.
He's always had the stats and the awards - 2007 MVP, 10-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA Team (4-time First Team, 5-Time Second Team, 2-Time Third Team) - and he's always had game. This year, he's added something more to his game. He's becoming an assassin. He's the player that is able to silence a roaring crowd, deflate an opponent and uplift his own team with one single shot. He's become the player no one wants to guard and everyone wants to play alongside.
After Game One, Michael Wilbon compared Dirk to Larry Bird and no one, not even Bird’s interracial hetero-lifemate, Magic Johnson, objected. That's how good he has become. While a championship would certainly secure his legacy and place in NBA history, Dirk has proven that he is the greatest foreign-born player the league has ever seen (sorry, Steve Nash) and that fact won't change, even if he is once again vanquished in the Finals by Wade and the Heat.
Five years ago, he was unable seize the moment. This year, regardless of what happens, he’s already shown that won’t be the case.