San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is not always quick to dole out praise...or words, in general. But when he took the time before Thursday night's game against the Dallas Mavericks to reflect on the career of longtime rival Dirk Nowitzki, the grizzled old coach was practically gushing, per ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon:
Ever since he got here day one, when nobody knew who the heck he was except Nellie [then-Mavs coach Don Nelson], he’s done a lot of great things. He started out a bit slow until he got used to the deal here and then became Dirk, a Hall of Fame player and somebody who’s arguably the best pure shooter we’ve ever seen.
Nowitzki recently passed Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list, and Popovich couldn't resist a friendly jibe at the forward's expense: “Well, you shoot it that much, you’re going to pass somebody. He shoots it every time he gets it. Geez, oh whiz!”
Clearly, there is a great deal of not only familiarity but also respect among these two. And it should come as no surprise: Few clubs in league history have met as often as Nowitzki's Mavs and Pop's Spurs.
Not only have these two been division rivals since Nowitzki's rookie year of 1998-99—in the years before the formation of the current Southwest Division, they used to duke it out in the now-defunct Midwest—but they met in the postseason an astounding six times between 2001 and 2010.
Though Popovich's Spurs hold a 4-2 advantage in postseason series, Nowitzki had perhaps the finest moment in the history of the rivalry (and his career) on the Spurs’ home court. The lanky German put together one of the greatest Game 7 performances in NBA history during the 2006 West semifinals, scoring 37 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and hitting an and-1 layup with 21.6 seconds left to force overtime as Dallas finally conquered their longtime nemesis, 119-111.
Over the years, Nowitzki proved himself as a lethal shooter. But he also became a good rebounder, learned how to post up on the block, found gold with the one-legged step-back jumper that now is being copied worldwide and, finally, became an NBA champion. He even became a functional defender, which was more astounding than any of the above.
Dallas will need every bit of Nowitzki's greatness on Thursday night, as they face a must-win game to remain safely ensconced in one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. If the Mavs end up in the No. 8 spot, they will probably be headed to San Antonio for yet another rematch with Popovich and the Spurs. That would certainly be a treat for basketball fans.