Dirk Nowitzki entered Tuesday's action needing 17 points to pass Hakeem Olajuwon and move into sole possession of ninth place on the NBA's career scoring list. On top of that, passing the Nigerian-born Olajuwon makes Nowitzki the top scoring player born outside the United States ever to play in the NBA. And with 8:56 remaining in the fourth quarter of Dallas' matchup with the Sacramento Kings, the fightin' and firin' pride of Wurzburg, Germany, made a bit of NBA history:
Nothing too fancy about it — just an in-rhythm catch-and-shoot at the left elbow off a feed by Monta Ellis that Kings forward Carl Landry just wasn't quick enough to contest. (Not that there's a whole heck of a lot you can do to bother the 7-foot Nowitzki when he raises up, anyway.) Step, catch, jump and splash, bumping Dirk's total up to 26,946 points in his illustrious career.
Here's what Dirk's milestone bucket looked like from the stands, complete with a post-whistle standing ovation from the American Airlines Center faithful that have watched Nowitzki's star shine throughout his 17 seasons in Dallas:
It was a well-deserved bit of recognition for a player whose stateside career began as an international curiosity acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks — along with Pat Garrity, lest we forget — for the princely sum of one Robert "Tractor" Traylor on the night of the 1998 NBA draft. (I think it's safe to say that the Mavs won that deal.)
You'd have been hard-pressed to predict that the gangly 20-year-old who spent much of his first season coming off Don Nelson's bench would wind up completely rewriting the Mavericks' record book, revolutionizing the sport by proving that 7-foot long-range bombers were more future than fad. Nobody saw Dirk becoming an offensive force dominant enough to win league MVP, lead his team to 11 straight 50-win seasons, deliver the first championship in franchise history, and continue captaining the NBA's best offense at age 36, after more than 48,000 NBA minutes.
But through a combination of innate talent, remarkable genetics, relentless work and the opportunity afforded by several critical forward-thinkers in the Mavs organization over the years, he's done all that and more, resurrecting the Mavericks' franchise and confirming his status as one of the greatest players in league history, irrespective of birthplace.
"Dirk has earned everything he's gotten, and every step up the ladder he takes is a reflection of his effort and his focus," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said before the game, according to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon. "To be the greatest international scorer ever is an amazing accomplishment. We're glad to have him here."
And on nights like Tuesday, you can understand why.
After the visiting Kings absolutely blitzed the Mavs from the opening tip, rolling up a 22-point lead late in the first quarter behind strong starts from Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore, Dallas started to claw their way back in the second quarter. Nowitzki, as he's been for the better part of two decades, was in the middle of the Mavericks' comeback, scoring 11 points in the second quarter to help get Rick Carlisle's club within nine at intermission. Ellis and the heretofore-largely-missing Chandler Parsons combined for 18 points in the third quarter, and with Kings star DeMarcus Cousins battling foul trouble and hardly anybody else in black and purple capable of knocking one down, the Mavericks came all the way back to take a lead late in the third that they'd never relinquish.
Ellis (who'd finish with 16 points, four assists and two steals) and Chandler (19 points, four rebounds, three assists, a 5-for-11 mark from 3-point range) deserve credit for their contributions to a 106-98 win that stands as Dallas' 21st consecutive victory over Sacramento and improves the Mavericks to 5-3 on the season. But to some extent, those two — and center Tyson Chandler, who notched his fourth straight double-double while stifling Cousins, and reserves Devin Harris and Brandon Wright (22 combined points on 11 total shots), and everyone else in Dallas' home whites — gets the chance to contribute what they can because of the attention Nowitzki draws, the space he provides, the omnipresent threat he poses to defenses and the litany of ways in which mad scientist Carlisle can deploy him.
A healthy and operational Dirk still changes everything for these Mavericks, from big-picture stuff like their prospects for competing in the brutal Western Conference to micro matters like turning a 22-point deficit into an eight-point win by scoring a team-high 23 points on 7-for-12 shooting to go with seven rebounds, three assists and a block in 34 1/2 minutes.
Nowitzki finished the night with 26,953 points, just 360 behind the great Elvin Hayes for the No. 8 spot on the all-time NBA scoring list. Moses Malone (27,409) is only 96 points ahead in seventh place. If Dirk stays upright and effective throughout the season, he could threaten Shaquille O'Neal's hold on sixth place (28,596).
And considering he's in the first season of the new three-year deal he signed this summer, and that Dirk's showing no signs of slowing down just yet — he's averaging 20.9 points in 29.2 minutes per game, shooting 52.9 percent from the floor, 48.6 percent from 3-point land and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line — he could wind up taking a run at Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) for a place in the top five before he hangs up his high-tops.
That might not sway those who view Olajuwon as the greatest foreign-born player of all time — defense is half the game, after all, and "The Dream" was an absolute monster on that end in a way that Dirk, to put it charitably, isn't — but it's certainly enough to underline just how exceptional his sure-fire first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career has been, and continues to be.
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