Before Wednesday night's home game, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Dirk Nowitzki was definitely coming around, but Cuban still didn't think his star was all the way back from the sprained right knee that sidelined him for nine games in late December and January.
One night later, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle had a different take. It came after Nowitzki lit up the Phoenix Suns for 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting, which included making three deep-knee-bend 3-pointers on three attempts (he's made five in a row over his last three games). It was his first 30-point game since Jan. 17 at Detroit, just two games into his return and one of the rare good shooting games he had over a 10-day stretch.
"Dirk’s back. He’s all the way back, and it’s great," Carlisle said. "It’s really good timing because now he has the All-Star break. He can recharge a little bit. He can play his 16 minutes in the All-Star Game or whatever it’s going to be. And he’s going to come back and get a day off on Monday. But, Dirk Nowitzki is back.”
If I'm Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, head coach of the Western Conference for Sunday's game in Los Angeles, I think long and hard about playing Nowitzki for the full 48 in his 10th consecutive All-Star appearance. The Mavs head into the break at 40-16, six games behind the Spurs, the number of games the Mavs lost while Nowitzki healed.
But, what if Nowitzki had never gotten hurt? Dallas was 2-7 without him and is 38-9 with him. The Spurs are 46-10.
The injury might keep the Mavs from contending for the West's No. 1 seed and it also took a bite out of Nowitzki's MVP campaign. His rusty return dropped his scoring average two points and his field-goal percentage two points. Still, it's not all that bad. Through 56 games, Nowitzki is averaging 22.7 points on a career-best 52.6-percent shooting. His 3-point percentage is up to 42.6 percent as he continues to get a healthy dose of wide-open, trailing 3s that seem automatic.
Even if Nowitzki is back to full strength, it is hard to say how many more 35-point games are in his future. On most nights, as this team is currently constructed, scoring is being spread around so unlike many teams in the Nowitzki era. Thursday's 112-106 win over the Suns was the 13th consecutive game that at least five Mavs have finished in double figures. The night before eight did it.
In the last six games, Nowitzki has posted 10, 12, 16, 22, 13 and 35 points, respectively, but the important number is his 51.9 percent shooting in those games. Dallas is 5-1 during that stretch with the lone loss coming on a buzzer-beater in Denver. Ironically, Nowitzki missed a late free-throw that would have put the Mavs up by two before the Nuggets' final possession.
As the Mavs head into their final 26 games, it is reassuring for them to know that when they do need 35, Nowitzki is capable of bringing it again.