Enter Dirk Nowitzki.
No seriously, enter Nowitzki.
After missing the first 27 games of the season as he recovered from knee surgery, Nowitzki unexpectedly returned to Dallas' rotation—just in time to watch the Mavericks get mauled by an insanely efficient Spurs team.
And yet, it's tough not to remain slightly optimistic in Big D. Sure, the team lost by 38 points and Nowitzki scored just eight, but, well, Dirk's back. Even in a full-fledged romping at Dallas' expense, that's cause for excitement mixed with confusion.
Just ask Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com, who was nothing short of bewildered when Nowitzki began warming up with the team:
Dirk Nowitzki is going through the warmup line...— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 23, 2012
Even Fox Sports Southwest's Dallas stats guy couldn't help but provide some statistically-void sentiments as he watched Dirk go through the pregame motions:
@swish41 in the warm up line for the first time this season. Going to give it a go TONIGHT!!!— Dallas Mavs Stats (@mavstats) December 23, 2012
Being told don't expect a large role. In fact, a very small role, but it looks like Dirk will play tonight.— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 23, 2012
Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm (with the help of a Mavericks fan) also offered some sound insight as to what was about to go down:
DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK RT @caitlinintexas: DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK DIRK!— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) December 23, 2012
there will be a dirk sighting tonight @swish41 !— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) December 24, 2012
Let's not pretend like his return was only a surprise for some either. As Dwain Price of the Star-Telegram pointed out, no one knew he was planning a comeback. Absolutely no one:
Any media member who say they knew Dirk Nowitzki was going to play Sunday, they're lying. Nowitzki's closest media friends didn't even know.— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) December 24, 2012
Given the hype and mysteriousness surrounding his return, it comes as no surprise that his first trip to the scorer's table was a surreal experience for not just the Mavericks, but the entire NBA:
Dirk Nowitzki's heading to the scorer's table, getting ready to check in for 1st time this season— J.A. Adande (@jadande) December 24, 2012
Yes, we had known he was going to play prior to tip-off, but watching him set foot on the hardwood for the first time made it more official than any announcement could—Dirk was back:
You guys! Dirk's back!— NBA Guru (@NBAGuru) December 24, 2012
I mean, you know something's a big deal when the league itself is smitten by the events that transpired:
Welcome Back Dirk! RT @jmcdonald_saen At 6:28 mark of 1Q on Dec. 23, Dirk Nowitizki makes season debut.— NBA (@NBA) December 24, 2012
As if his sheer presence wasn't enough, though, Mavericks fans were treated to a sequence they had been waiting 27 games to witness:
Dirk to Mayo. It finally happened.— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
They were then treated to an even more highly anticipated sequence:
Diiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrkkkkk!!!! Scores it with 26.6 left in the 1st.— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
And then, like clockwork, Dirk began to go to work:
Dirk for 3. It's pretty. It's sooooo pretty.— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
No Nowitzki performance would have been complete, however, without a patented Dirk fadeaway:
That said, Nowitzki's return was marked by more out-of-character realities than anything. Like attempting only four shots in 20 minutes of burn:
For the game, Dirk Nowitzki finished with eight points (3-of-4 FG's), six rebounds, one steal and one foul in 20:02. He was 1-of-1 from 3FG.— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) December 24, 2012
Though Nowitzki failed to score in excess, one would have hoped that his presence alone, that his return alone would be enough to inspire and subsequently carry his team to victory.
But it wasn't. Instead, the Spurs rip-rolled their way to a 38-point victory, their largest margin of victory over the Mavericks in 20-plus years:
Unhappy season debut for Dirk Nowitzki-- Spurs 38-pt win is their biggest vs Mavericks since November, 1991— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2012
Still, Dirk was back and this meant everything to Dallas' immediate future. Even if Nowitzki himself downplayed his debut:
Dirk: "I don't think I'm gonna get more explosive at age 34, so I gave it a go."— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
What cannot be downplayed, however, is the collective relief that washed over the Mavericks knowing that Dirk's knee felt fine:
Dirk said the knee felt fine the entire night. Added sometimes the team would get a shot before he even made it past halfcourt.— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
What wasn't as comforting was Nowitzki's portrayal of his team's execution:
"Maybe our basketball IQ went down a little bit, obviously, with JKidd leaving. I think that's pretty obvious.'' -- #Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) December 24, 2012
But again, that was something for Dirk and company to worry about later. This was all about his return, the next step in the healing and collective resurrection process.
Dirk: "As a team, we've got a long way to go."— Earl K. Sneed (@EKS_MavsNBA) December 24, 2012
Of course the Mavericks have a long way to go, but now, this wasn't a complete loss. Somehow, out of the depths of a historical beat down spawned hope.
Courtesy of one Dirk Nowitzki.