DALLAS – The greatest player in these NBA playoffs walked out of the locker room late Tuesday dressed in slacks and a striped shirt, his blonde, tussled hair still a little damp. Dirk Nowitzki(notes) looked like he had just put in 40 minutes on the treadmill after clocking his eight hours at the local brokerage. He'd delivered one of the most stunning big-game shooting performances this league has seen, and he might as well have been another 9-to-5er, hustling out of the gym to grab a $3 Bud Light before happy hour ends.
After all these years, there's still little about Nowitzki that intimidates. He's the NBA star you want as your friend, the goofy German who hums David Hasselhoff tunes at the free-throw line. Maybe that's why so many people have refused to admit the obvious for so long: The guy is a cold-blooded killer.
The sports world has no choice but to recognize his greatness now. Nowitzki swept the champion Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs, took eight days off, then dropped 48 points on the Oklahoma City Thunder to carry the Dallas Mavericks to a 121-112 victory in the opening game of the Western Conference finals. He took just 15 shots, none of them a 3-pointer, and made all but three. He set a league record by making all 24 of his free throws. Kevin Durant(notes) scored 40 points, and still he was no match for Nowitzki.
Nowitzki has never wavered in his quest to crown his Hall of Fame career with a championship, to bring that elusive title to the Metroplex. There has always been something noble about Nowitzki's chase. Over and over, he's been dismissed. Too soft. Too lacking in grit. Too much of a front-runner. And each year he comes back hungrier and more determined.
All those years of playoff failure have hardened him: the collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals, the stunning loss to the Golden State Warriors in '07, two more first-round exits in '08 and '10. He was the rare MVP who had to be called off vacation to accept his trophy, and look at him now. He's still standing.
Nowitzki never looked more resilient than last summer. He, too, was a member of the greatest free-agent class in league history, and he, too, seemingly had every reason to leave the only franchise he's ever known. The Mavericks had entered the playoffs as the West's No. 2 seed only to lose to their loathed rival, the San Antonio Spurs. It was the Mavs' third first-round loss in four years, and Nowitzki again shouldered more blame than he deserved. Not since Steve Nash(notes) left for the Phoenix Suns in 2004 have the Mavs paired Nowitzki with an in-his-prime star. Even now, the Mavs' second-best player is their 38-year-old point guard, Jason Kidd(notes).
And yet Nowitzki hardly debated leaving. He met with Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who assured him the franchise would continue to build a contender around him.
"All I wanted to hear was that he was going to go for it, keep bringing players in for us to ultimately get our goals," Nowitzki said. "That's all I really needed to hear."
Nowitzki now stands three wins from again reaching the NBA Finals, seven from meeting that ultimate goal. Maybe he falls short again. These Thunder don't look ready to wilt, and the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat would both present a formidable challenge in the Finals. But if Nowitzki does win that elusive championship?
All those struggles Nowitzki has endured will make a championship so much more fulfilling. He's stayed in Dallas to see this quest to the end. James and Chris Bosh(notes) can't be faulted for leaving their franchises for a better opportunity to hunt titles with Dwyane Wade(notes), but this is also true: When the going got tough, they bailed. Nowitzki stayed to fight some more.
In their search for instant gratification, all these young stars want to pair up and chase championships together. "Sometimes you take an easier route," Tim Duncan(notes) told me at the start of this season. "But the easier route isn't always guaranteed anything."
Nowitzki believes the same. He's the anti-'Melo, the old-school player who still sees some value in the journey. After all these years, he's still carrying the Mavericks, only now he thinks this group is stronger than the one he had around him in '06. These Mavs are big and deep, as complete a roster as is left in the playoffs. But they're also better than that team five years ago because Dirk is better.
One by one the game's giants have fallen in these playoffs. Duncan. Kobe Bryant(notes). Shaquille O'Neal(notes). Kevin Garnett(notes). Injuries and age have conspired to limit them all, and yet here's Dirk, a month from his 33rd birthday, playing as well as he ever has, tormenting all those young defenders the Thunder threw at him.
"I would definitely agree that he's getting better as he gets older," Kidd said.
There are a couple reasons for that. Those early exits have helped save Nowitzki's legs: He entered the West finals with about 3,500 fewer minutes on his playoff odometer than Kobe. That's more than 1½ 82-game seasons' worth. And yet Nowitzki also has continued to put in the work to shape his game and body. The night before every non-afternoon game in these playoffs, he's gone to the gym to shoot. At home, he heads to the Mavericks' practice court in American Airlines Center. On the road, the Mavs find him a gym. During the Mavs' eight-day break before the West finals, he shot on most nights.
Nowitzki walked onto the court Tuesday in a rhythm. Thunder coach Scott Brooks shuffled through nearly half his roster – from Serge Ibaka(notes) to Nick Collison(notes) to Durant to Thabo Sefolosha(notes) to James Harden(notes) – to find someone who could slow him. He didn't. Nowitzki posted, turned and shot over his defenders. He beat them down the court for layups. Once, he pump-faked Kendrick Perkins(notes) past him, then stuck a jumper with Harden in his face. When the Thunder tried to get physical with him, Nowitzki baited them into fouls.
Durant was still frustrated by the experience by the time he stepped onto the dais for his postgame news conference. Someone wanted to know what made Nowitzki so difficult to guard.
"He's a 7-foot jump-shooter," Durant said. "He shoots one-legged fade-aways."
It isn't that simple, of course. All those playoff battles, all those losses, have shaped Nowitzki, toughened him. Durant vowed the Thunder will defend better in Game 2. Nowitzki will likely be back in the gym Wednesday night, shooting some more, getting ready for whatever's coming next.
He's a man on a mission, as his teammate said, and the Mavericks can count on this much: He'll fight to the end.