Dirk: The Great and Powerful

@treykerby provided my favorite tweet from last night:

Raise your hand if you picked Portland to beat Dallas in the first round. Own it.

There was little reason to believe the Mavericks could get here. They had an impressive regular season, but they were saddled with an aging supporting cast and a star who may or may not have seen his best days in 2006. Beyond that, the Mavericks found themselves facing a particularly tough path to the Finals. All the Mavericks had to do in order to reach the Finals was to take down fan darling Portland, the defending NBA Champions and the best young team in the game.

And yet the Mavericks came into the Playoffs undeterred. They didn’t much care who stood in their way or what challenges were ahead of them. They knew how they played together, they knew how to support each other, and their collective experience allowed them to keep a level head when most teams would fall apart.

At the center of it all has been Dirk Nowitzki, a guy so focused on his game that he didn’t stick around to the end of last night’s Western Conference Championship celebration. He’s a man with things to do and with a closing window to do it in. And besides, the Western Conference title isn’t the one he’s interested in.

I won’t waste your time in joining the chorus of voices comparing Dirk’s playoff run to the greats in NBA history. If you’re reading this, I trust that you have an understanding of how well Dirk Nowitzki is playing.

All I will say is that performances like what we’ve seen from him is what keeps me loving this game. This is a guy who has played his whole career in Dallas, and he will probably never leave. He’s gone from a novelty (who among us didn’t say ‘he’s a big man who can pass and shoot threes? How fun?’) to the league’s MVP to a guy thought to be  over-the-hill and now back to the forefront of the basketball world.

And I think if you were able to sit down and ask him about the journey, he’d probably sum it up by saying something like ‘I trust my teammates, I trust my coach, and I wake up every day wanting to improve my game.’

And then he’d go back to the gym to work on his jump shot.

Regardless who comes out of the East, I’m very excited for this year’s NBA Finals, but before I move on, a few thoughts about the Thunder:

About 20 minutes after last night’s game, I realized something. If the Oklahoma City Thunder can keep their team together, they’re going to be really, really good. Not only do they have a Superstar in Durant, but a Superstar who gives a crap. If you saw any of Kevin Durant’s post-game press conference, you saw it in his face. Kid was hurting. The kind of hurt that, if you’re lucky, pushes you to take your blinding talent to a monstrous level. The kind of hurt that you hear Champions talk about with Ahmad Rashad after they’ve won a ring.

If I were a betting man, I’d say that last night’s presser was the last time we see KD’s backpack; the last time we see him wearing bow ties or thick rimmed glasses. I think the days of being satisfied as the ‘young up and comer’ are now behind Kevin Durant. I think he comes back next season looking to do battle.

Combined with that, the Thunder have a top-notch point guard in Russell Westbrook, the kind of guy that will throw himself down a gauntlet if he thinks it’ll open a shot for a teammate, and a developing X-Man in James Harden (secret powers include supernatural facial-hair-growing abilities and the talent to magically appear at exactly the right spot on the floor, Night Crawler style).

If you’re still foaming at the mouth about how the Miami Heat came together, and decry the goings on of the NBA’s most recent trade and free agency periods, then the Oklahoma City Thunder is your antidote. This is a team that may well have a homegrown ‘big three’ of their own, armed with the full support of their fan base, youth, and a newly found hunger to one day stand atop the basketball world.

Odds are good that those three guys are in a gym somewhere in Oklahoma right now, trying to figure out what they’re going to need to do next.

Hardwood Paroxysm