Now It’s Nowitzki

 

The 2007 Mavericks were a great team. I’m not tossing that term out lightly. I’m not convinced to this day that the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers, who won the freaking title, were a great team. (The 2010 team was a great team, as was the 2011 team right up until about the time Chris Paul leaped up and stabbed them in the eye like Kratos.) But the 2007 Mavericks? That was a great team. Top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The only other team to be so was the San Antonio Spurs. The Mavs were second on offense, fifth on defense, the Spurs second on defense, fifth on offense. The Mavericks, believe it or not, were better than the 2006 team that went to the Finals the year prior. They were deep. They were smooth. They were, yes, well coached. They were also fun as hell to watch. To this day, this remains the most fun I’ve ever had watching a game. It was one of those nights, where yes, it’s the regular season, but by God, it felt like May. The two teams were so locked in to beating one another, they were killing themselves trying to win that game. After that double-overtime joy fest, it seemed absolutely certain the Suns and Mavs were going to meet for the Western Conference Championship and the right to thump whatever chump came out of the East (LeBron James, step on down!).

That team was when Jerry Stackhouse was still able to produce, and Josh Howard was still considered a top-flight small forward. Jason Terry was the kind of scorer you trembled in fear at. Devin Harris was the young kid along for the ride and showing now and then why he would be the point guard of the future for Dallas after they won the title. Erick Dampier was a load, and not nearly as slow, still able to take rebounds and give fouls. And Dirk?

Dirk was Dirk. Like he’s never been. 2006 was a superior season in terms of raw production. But that 2007 Dirk was something else. He was still so furious about the Finals loss, and you could see it. Everyone scoffed at his MVP trophy, wanting to give it to Bryant, but Nowtizki dropped a 27.6 PER with a 61% True Shooting Percentage on 28.9% usage while the Mavericks won 67 games. SIX-TY-SEV-EN.

It was a masterful season. They were the best team in the league. Their path was set. Topple the first round opponent, like you do, face either the Jazz (O-VER-RA-TED) or the Rockets in a quality six-game semis, then the big one. Whoever survived out of the San Antonio-Phoenix bloodsport would be so battered and bruised, facing Dallas would be like going into the thresher after a car wreck. Beat the crap out of whatever East team came out (hopefully Miami), and forget 2006 ever happened.

And then…

That Goddamn Warriors team.

Don’t be confused. I pulled for that Warriors team with every ounce in me. I wanted to see the upset, the underdog, the unbelievable moment where the worst playoff team in the West knocked down the Big Bad German. I wanted to see the scrappy underdog overcome all odds and show what “true heart means.” I “believed.”

That series was not only an abject freakazoid, lightning strike four-times in the same spot outlier of logic and production, it was the worst thing that could have happened for both franchises. The Warriors fans got their moment, that shining night where your team did the impossible. That also resulted in another three seasons of Don Nelson boozeballing the team into the ground requiring the sale of the team and a complete overhaul to get the team right, which they’re still working on. It led to the Stephen Jackson contract, Baron Davis thinking he was worth the money to hop on over to Clipperland, Monta, and the rest.

And for the Mavericks? A horrible matchup that they could not have avoided created a perfect storm of conditions. The right crowd, the right team, the right matchups, the right bounces, the right emotional response from Dallas and the right timing. It all came together, and the Mavericks lost. One of the truly great teams of the last ten years is now held in disdain as one of the biggest jokes in NBA history, the classic example of choking. They are the wretched and the years after only provided turmoil, failure, and a gradual decline. That’s how the story was going to end. Dirk goes down with an MVP, underrated by most, talked of in writer’s lunches and on podcasts, always anchored by the collapse in the 2006 Finals and the greatest season that ever ended in disaster.

Until this year.

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Everyone acts like the last few years have seen such an upturn in great teams. But back up a second and consider what Nowitzki and the Mavericks have been fighting against during their ten year 50-win war. Shaq’s Lakers. Duncan’s Spurs. The Pau-trade-created monster team. The only window for the Mavericks? 2006 and 2007. When they lost in the Finals in one of the most contentiously officiated series ever, and in a maelstrom of bad luck. The Clippers win three more games and we’re not talking about this right now. That 2007 Spurs team? Good. Really good. But most Spurs fans will tell you it wouldn’t hold up to the other championship teams, and that’s the season immediately after Dirk beat the Spurs in San Antonio to advance. There were some incredible teams that Nowitzki had to fight tooth and nail with in his prime (I say as he just got through with his best TS% season ever, but we’ll get there).

But still, the teams have gotten better. This was the most loaded NBA season in history. But at the end, it was supposed to be the same story in the West. It was going to be the Lakers. We all knew it. We were positive. I had resigned myself to the inevitability of knowing who is going to celebrate in June before the season. All the rest was just filler. And if for some reason the Lakers didn’t win it, it was going to be the Spurs in the West. The top seed, with one of their best regular seasons ever, the unstoppable offense. And if not them, certainly the Thunder. They added Kendrick Perkins for crying out loud! (Don’t ask me when Kendrick Perkins became the greatest defensive player ever and the guy who makes an entirely inconsistent Thunder defense into an unstoppable juggernaut just by being  mean-looking. I’m still trying to figure it out.) Dallas had been there all season, flirting early with the top seed in the league, just hanging out. A few noticed. I wrote about them a few times, mentioned Nowitzki as an MVP candidate. They were playing exceptionally well. Carlisle, in particular, seemed to have figured out some things about this particular team we hadn’t seen before.

But in the end, they fell off enough that we forgot about them. Another good season, but really. Hornets, Nuggets, and Blazers fans were all begging to get the Mavericks, thinking they were ripe for an upset. Blazer fans really thought they were going to win that series. Instead, it was one Brandon Roy WTF game from being a sweep. And we started to see it. But certainly, no. The Lakers will do what they have always done. Dirk Nowitzki, with no rings, can’t beat Kobe Bryant, with five. Can’t happen.

Then the Mavericks shot the lights out. It was masterful. It could only have been done by Dallas, too. They were the one team with the veteran shooters, experience, skill, speed, and ability to take the approach of “Let’s bury ‘em. And then let’s kick the dirt over on top of  ‘em.” They just kept shooting. Phil Jackson’s going to have peyote hallucinations about Peja and Terry dropping bombs for another five years. And before we could come to terms with what happened, down goes the Lakers. Dead. And you started to get the feeling.

It was supposed to be about Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson getting the three-peat to ride off into the sunset. It was supposed to be about L.A. cementing itself as the greatest again. If not, it was supposed to be about the old Spurs putting in one last ride (even if their defense was a weak-ass miniature pony running into fenceposts). If not, it was surely supposed to be about the Thunder, and the arrival of Kevin Durant with Russell Westbrook his Robin.

No.

Nope.

Nuh-uh.

Now?

Now It’s Nowitzki.

This is the shot. This is the one, with Dirk putting in one of the finest playoff performances we’ve ever seen, being absolutely unstoppable in the biggest moments. Nowitzki isn’t human right now in the fourth. There’s so much confidence it makes you ill. Nick Collison played some of the best defense you’re ever going to see on Dirk (and got away with the most fouls you’re ever going to see on Dirk; seriously, someone tell Nick you gotta buy a girl dinner first), and Nowitzki still took him to school, sat him down, quizzed him, graded him, then beat him up and took his lunch money after school. The stuff we love about sports? Nowitzki was all of it against the Thunder. Heroic, timely, passionate, exciting, aggressive, intelligent, efficient, ballsy, and a little bit nuts. This isn’t the tongue-spitting Dirk. This is the determined “That’s right, MFers, I’mma keep killing you till I can’t move” Dirk. There’s no joy in this, he’s too driven. After Game 5, he didn’t smile, didn’t seem relaxed. He was just irritated that he has to wait six days to start killing whoever else is in his way.

There will not be another chance for Nowitzki. Nash, his old partner, who formed one of the truly lovable teams of the decade with Dirk, probably won’t get a shot. But for Nowitkzi, there’s a chance at redemption. And no, it doesn’t look good. Miami is better, should they advance. Wade got to the line in 2006? James will get to the line in 2011, along with Wade, and Bosh. The Heat can defend where the Thunder could not, and as helter-skelter as the Heat offense can look at times, it’s a might bit better than the crap sandwich Scotty Brooks spooned out onto the floor in the clutch. The Heat have components to stop Dirk like they did in 2006 (Haslem), and weapons to gun with them. The odds are not good.

But the Mavericks don’t care. This team isn’t playing with a “Hey, look where we got to?” flair, they’re not just happy to be here. This is a veteran team that believes that fate or talent or marketability or storyline be damned, this is their ring. It belongs to them. Nowitzki is the centerpiece of that. He will not be denied. He will not be deterred. And he will continue to rain down on you no matter how you guard him.

This season was supposed to be the final chapter of the Laker’s past. Or it was supposed to be about the Thunder’s future.

But now?

Now, It’s Nowitzki.

Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.