A three-dribble back-down, quick rightward spin, the un-blockable arching shot that barely touches twine...squint just a bit, and it’s easy to think you’re watching the Dirk Nowitzki of 2011 [in 2014].
The living Dallas Mavericks legend was magnificent once again Tuesday night, notching 32 points with a cache of clever turnarounds and clutch threes to spur his team to a much-needed 128-119 overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
How much more magic the Mavs get from their smooth-shooting staple will likely dictate just how high the team’s postseason ceiling can be.
So, too, will the team’s ultimate seeding, it seems. While the Mavs are 2-1 against the Thunder this year, they’re 0-3 against the team they’d face in the playoffs if the season ended today: the San Antonio Spurs.
Which is why, if Dallas has any hope of overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies for the West’s No. 7 seed—and possibly making some noise against OKC—it’ll need their sweet-shooting seven-footer firing on all cylinders. Just like he did tonight.
Truth be told, that’s been his M.O. for much of the year.
At 35 years old and scarcely removed from the worst statistical campaign of his career—albeit one marred by injury—Nowitzki’s mini-renaissance has been the single biggest reason behind Dallas’ playoff push.
|Vintage Dirk by the Numbers|
But while Dirk may be Dallas’ most important player, the occasional off night doesn't always portend doom: In the 28 games where Nowitzki has tallied under 20 points, the Mavericks are 15-13—slightly off their overall pace, but not noticeably so.
Contrastingly, the Mavs are 6-1 in games where he scores 30 or more.
Still, Dirk’s impact is more a product of whether he’s actually on the floor. According to NBA.com (subscription required), Nowitzki is charting the team’s second-highest plus-minus for players who’ve logged at least 30 minutes (plus-6.2)
Contrastingly, the Mavs are at their worst (minus-4.6) with Dirk on the bench.
Tuesday night was no different, with Dallas’ perennial All-Star tallying a plus-15, second only to Jose Calderon’s plus-21.
After blowing a late fourth-quarter lead en route to a 107-104 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, Tuesday’s tilt was one Dallas absolutely had to have, with the surging Phoenix Suns just a half-game back at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings.
Dirk delivered, Dallas held strong and the improbable prospect of a playoff push was suddenly summoned.
It hasn’t all been a plate of Texas ribs, however. According to Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, prior to their St. Patrick’s Day game against the Boston Celtics, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban openly wondered whether Nowitzki—now nearly a full 16 seasons under his belt—hadn’t been dozing at the wheel:
I think sometimes he loses concentration, and I think we’ve got to get past that. I mentioned it to him today. I asked him how his nap was during the game [Sunday at Oklahoma City]. He laughed. At least that’s while I was facing him. When I turned my back and walked away, I don’t know.
A harmless jab between franchise friends? Perhaps. But Cuban’s concerns aren’t completely baseless. Having shrugged from his shoulders the stigma of a title-less career, Dirk might not be approaching this season with the verve and vigor of his prime—and understandably so.
But if any one game could sway that perspective, it was this one.
No one is under the delusion Dallas can somehow contend for a title. The West is simply too stacked—top-heavy and meaty in the middle—for that kind of shocker to unfold.
And yet, there’s magic in the notion that, without Kobe Bryant to carry the twilight torch (Tim Duncan has been doing it plenty long), Dirk might just employ a few more one-footers—flicked high with impossible ease—towards scoreboard upheavals.
Perhaps Drew Garison, writing at SB Nation, summed it up best:
There's no shame in selfishly cherishing another run with the one-legged fadeaway assassin, either. He's having an incredible season, raising a very incomplete Dallas Mavericks roster to playoff contention in the deep Western Conference. The new blood of the NBA will have plenty of time to collect All-Star accolades. Why not appreciate one of the most unique and talented players to play in the league over the last decade?
The Mavericks are 10-11 against this year’s expected West playoff teams—certainly not a mark in which to read an imminent first-round upset.
But between Dirk’s vintage exploits, the second-option prowess of Monta Ellis and Rick Carlisle’s coaching chops, you’d be at a loss to lasso anyone willing to categorically count the Mavs out.
Least of all the Thunder, who now know as well as anyone just how many arrows Dallas’ timeless hero has left in the quiver.