Sure, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks needs a championship to complete his hall-of-fame resume. But that is only to complete it, as his career accomplishments thus far already point to an eventual home with the rest of the NBA's greats.
He has now been the best player on two NBA Finals participants. Each time, he had to play out of his mind to elevate the rest of his teammates, none of whom were All-Stars, to the NBA's ultimate stage.
In the 2006 playoffs, Dirk averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists. In this season's playoff run, he has averaged 28-8-3. He won an MVP in 2007, and has finished in the top five of MVP voting four other times. He is one of the great shooters of all-time, eclipsing the holy grail for shooters in '07 when he hit the 50/40/90 (field goal, three point, and free throw percentages) plateau.
Entering this postseason, Dirk was carrying the label of a player who didn't show up in the playoffs. On the contrary, Dirk has always been a great playoff performer. The 'six-game sweep' in 2006 was a team collapse, not to be blamed solely on Dirk. In fact, if it weren't for some quickly forgotten iconic Dirk moments, the Mavs never would have gotten to those Finals.
In game seven of the Mavs' 2006 second-round series against San Antonio, Manu Ginobili hit the go-ahead three with under 20 seconds to go. Dallas dumped the ball to—who else?—Dirk, who backed down Bruce Bowen for a spinning, twisting lay-up, got the foul, and hit the free throw to go to over-time. Dallas wins.
In game 5 against Phoenix, Dirk poured in 50 points and 12 rebounds, going into 'no way we are losing this game' mode by scoring 22 of Dallas' final 32 points, stealing the momentum necessary for Dallas to win the series.
It has been more of the same for Dirk in this run. After eviscerating the highly-rated defenses of Portland and the Lakers, Dirk saw the Oklahoma City Thunder standing in the way of his return to the NBA Finals. Dirk promptly scored 48 points on 15 field goal attempts in game one, going 24 for 24 from the free throw line.
The tempo of the series was set, and OKC couldn't stop Dirk. They had a slew of defenders to throw at him: the uber-athletic Serge Ibaka, the lanky Kevin Durant, the bulky duo of Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. No one stood a chance.
Now, Nowitzki is doing it on the biggest stage. Even the Heat defense, the best I've seen at locking a team down at the end of a game since Jordan's Bulls (regular season excluded) can't stop the big German.
He scored the final nine points in Dallas' epic comeback in game two, saving the Mavs' championship hopes. He nearly did it again in game three, as another Dallas comeback fell short when Nowitzki's fadeaway 20-footer rimmed out at the end of regulation.
I'm not here to put Dirk up with the immortals of Magic, Bird, and MJ. Those guys at the top of the all-time list dominated in several facets of the game. Dirk will never be the passer that Bird, his closest comparison, was. But he is right there with Bird as far as his ability to put the ball in the basket goes, and both are equally impossible to stop.
Dirk is a top-30 player with the potential to move into the top 20 by beating the Heat. Win or lose, let's all just enjoy what he is: the best perimeter seven footer we have ever seen. One of the most difficult covers a defense will ever face. A guy who will put the ball in the basket when it matters most. And yes, a big-time playoff performer.
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