DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) snarled and flung his arms up, pushing himself from Matt Bonner(notes), a show of toughness that sent the American Airlines Center into a delirious roar. Nowitzki bared his teeth and barked some more, and, no, this was not an act born of frustration. This looked like contempt.
This is who you send to stop me, Nowitzki seemed to be demanding. Is this all you have? All these years, all these battles, and, still, you haven't learned?
Never does Nowitzki look so ferocious as while he's chewing through the San Antonio Spurs. He has done it for much of the past decade, and he did so again Sunday, scoring 36 points and leading his Dallas Mavericks to a 100-94 victory in the opening game of the teams' first-round playoff series. Nowitzki missed just two shots and none of his 12 free throws, a stunningly efficient performance that should remind everyone that even now, two months from his 32nd birthday and a dozen seasons into his NBA career, he remains at the top of his game.
This, too, should also serve as a reminder of not only how far Nowitzki has come, but also where he's headed. In a little more than two months, the grandest free-agent market in NBA history opens, and Nowitzki could take his place alongside LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) as one of the biggest prizes. Yet, unlike James, Wade and Bosh, Nowitzki hasn't publicly flirted with the idea of moving to another team, and that's because, deep down, he knows something else.
Never has he had it this good.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson have forever labored to build a title contender around Nowitzki. Sometimes they've tinkered too much – letting Steve Nash(notes) jet off into a pair of MVP awards in Phoenix qualifies as such – but they've always continued to work, and their latest efforts show promise. Nowitzki now looks at the depth of talent around him, at all the different working parts, and sees what most of the NBA sees: This is a roster built for the grind of the playoffs.
"We have enough weapons," Nowitzki said.
Caron Butler(notes) ranks high among them. He came over two months ago from Washington in a deadline-week deal along with Brendan Haywood(notes) and DeShawn Stevenson(notes), all of them bringing an aggressiveness the Mavericks were lacking. Haywood left his imprint on the Spurs by helping Dallas' other 7-foot center, Erick Dampier(notes), control the boards. Butler delivered 22 points.
"Everything I've been working on with Coach and watching film for the last month and a half, two months, has been preparation for the playoffs," Butler said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity."
Nowitzki could say the same. Two years before Butler arrived, Nowitzki received his greatest gift yet. The Mavericks acquired Jason Kidd(notes) in a trade with Devin Harris(notes), an unpopular deal given Harris' enormous potential and Kidd's advancing age. The criticism only grew – here and elsewhere – after Kidd's first season in Dallas ended with a first-round exit and Harris grew into an All-Star the following season. Instead, Kidd has now done exactly what Cuban thought he would: He has made the game easier for Nowitzki.
The bond between Nowitzki and Kidd continues to grow, as has Kidd's impact. He has become a deadly 3-point threat at an age when most expect to see only slippage. And if the Mavs wanted any more evidence of the magic Kidd can work, all they need to do is look across the court.
The Spurs have a hard time swallowing those numbers now that they're responsible for $29 million of the contract. They traded for Jefferson in the offseason, and so far he has delivered only a luxury-tax bill. More than anyone, Jefferson represents the Spurs' ongoing struggle to surround their stars with enough productive role players. On Sunday, Tim Duncan(notes), Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) combined for 71 points, yet received only a single satisfactory performance from their supporting cast: Antonio McDyess(notes).
"I thought we had a lot of guys who played like dogs," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, and it's no secret who he thought was woofing the loudest.
Jefferson made one shot in 32 minutes and now looks just as indecisive on the court as he did at the altar eight months ago. Losing George Hill(notes) also robbed the Spurs of one of their best perimeter defenders. If Hill's injured right foot keeps him sidelined as it did for much of the second half, then Parker could reclaim his starting job, even though he insists Popovich wants to continue using him as "Manu Jr." off the bench.
The Spurs will need to locate a spark somewhere, and they don't have many options. From Jaren Jackson to Stephen Jackson(notes) to Steve Kerr to Bruce Bowen(notes) and Robert Horry(notes), they won championships by finding role players who could contribute under pressure. They thought they had another before last season's playoffs exposed Roger Mason's(notes) limitations. Mason now has a new role: designated fouler.
On three consecutive possessions, Popovich had Mason wrap up Dampier. In doing so, the Spurs conceded their inability to guard Nowitzki. "We hoped [Dampier] would miss free throws," Popovich said, "rather than Dirk killing us the way he was."
Nowitzki didn't have as many weapons at his disposal in last season's playoffs, and the Spurs doubled him aggressively, limiting him to an average of 16.3 points through the series' first four games. San Antonio still lost three of those games, and Josh Howard(notes) was a big reason why. Even now Howard continues to haunt the Spurs: It was his contract that allowed the Mavericks to acquire Butler and Haywood.
The Spurs rarely double-teamed Nowitzki on Sunday, perhaps fearful of allowing too many Mavericks to find their rhythm. Popovich instead rotated defenders at him, from McDyess to Bonner to Jefferson to Keith Bogans(notes). None of them had any lasting success.
"I'm going to take whatever they give me," Nowitzki said.
Nowitzki has already taken a lot from these Spurs. He won last year's series with 31 points in Game 5, he won the teams' epic 2006 series with 37 points in Game 7 and he very well could have won the 2003 series had he not missed the final three games with an injured left knee. The Spurs have never had an answer for him, and they don't look much closer to finding one now.
"We tried a lot of different things," Popovich said, "and he beat them all."
Afterward, Nowitzki said all the right stuff. A couple of his shots were lucky to fall in. He still expects the series to become a grind. The Spurs are too good, too proud, to go down easy.
Maybe he's right. But Nowitzki also knows he has never had this much help. He looks down his bench and sees all these pieces fitting together. He sees opportunity. He watches Butler bury a 3-pointer. He watches Kidd bury another.
From across the court, the Spurs see the same, and they, too, wonder: Has Nowitzki ever looked more dangerous?