It's been one heck of a two-month start into this shortened, hyper-speed season for Dirk Nowitzki.
First he had to digest the fact that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was not bringing the championship team back intact, first and foremost Tyson Chandler. The 7-foot-1 center proved to be the perfect complement to Nowitzki on and off the floor. A week ago, the two surely reminisced over dinner in the Big Apple.
Then there was Nowitzki's conditioning issues coming off a whirlwind and then lockout-extended offseason. He took four games off specifically to work behind the scenes to build up strength in his bothersome right knee, an unprecedented scenario (and perhaps a slightly embarrassing one) for the ultra-durable Nowitzki. His production had plummeted, with more single-digit scoring games coming in one month's time than anyone could recall over his career, and Nowitzki was the first to say that he wasn't deserving of an 11th consecutive selection as a reserve to the Western Conference All-Star team.
The Western Conference coaches disagreed. And for good reason.
The NBA Finals MVP is back on his game and he'll be ready for duty in tonight's All-Star Game in Orlando.
But, things did get dicey. Three games back from his personal training camp in late January -- working relentlessly with head athletic trainer Casey Smith in the weight room and running sprints the length of the court after practices, all designed to bolster lower-body strength -- Nowitzki bottomed out on Feb. 1 with a 2-of-15 shooting struggle for eight points in a loss to Oklahoma City.
His scoring average scraped a season-low 16.2 points a game, a mark he hadn't touched since his rookie season. His shooting percentages were also at career-low levels and his 3-point shooting -- coming off an 0-for-5 in that game -- was on life support in the high teens.
"This is really the first time in my career that I’ve really had some wear and tear going," Nowitzki said. "I’ve been in this league for 14 years now and it’s been a smooth ride basically with no major injuries. This year, having no time to prepare, starting five or six games a week with basically no training camp, my knees weren’t ready for it. They were starting to swell up. I basically had swelling in the knee for the first four or five weeks."
Still, after that loss to the Thunder, Nowitzki said all the grueling work was paying off, he could feel it. The swelling that slowed his progress early had diminished. A breakthrough, he believed, was nearing.
In the 11 games since, Nowitzki has averaged 25.4 points, with three games of 30 or more and six of 25 or more, while shooting 48.5 percent (100-of-206). He's averaged 8.4 rebounds and has three double-doubles in his last four games.
Add a list of career milestones -- he moved up from No. 24 to No. 20 on the NBA's all-time scoring list, recorded his 1,000th career 3-pointer, 1,000th career block and 1,000th career game -- and the first half of the season might have at times seemed bad, but certainly never boring.
With Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan ending long All-Star Game streaks, only Kobe Bryant has played in more. Time keeps ticking, but Father Time still has a way to go to catch up to the Mavs' big German.
Here's Nowitzki in his own words:
Q: What are you able to do now that you could not do before taking taking the four games off?
A: Coming from that week, it got better and better. I feel good now. I move a lot better. At the beginning of the season I was basically a spot-up shooter. If I didn’t have it, I couldn’t make a move. I wasn’t explosive enough. Now I’m able to put the ball on the floor again, post some and do all the stuff basically I was doing last year. I feel good. It was a long stretch. I didn’t feel like it was going to take me five or six weeks to get back where I was, but it is what it is.
A: I actually think that one-legged step-away came in the games. I don’t think Holger [Geschwindner] ever worked on that. That’s just something that helped me create a little space. Sometimes the defenders are so up close on me and they’re usually smaller and quicker, so for me, it’s a way to just get a little separation and a good look at the basket. But that’s not really a shot that we work on.
Q: Lamar Odom has not lived up to expectations in Dallas. Flashes have typically been followed by fall-backs. Are you concerned that Odom will not emerge as a significant contributor to a title defense?
A: He’s a work in progress, as well. He’s another older, veteran guy that needed more than two weeks of training camp. We’ve all been working hard to get back to where we were, and he’s been doing the same thing. He’s been coming in early, getting shots up and trying to get back to where he was last season. I still like what he brings to the team. He’s a versatile defender who can defend a lot of positions and get rebounds. Offensively, he can put the ball on the floor and spot-up jump shoot once in a while and post-ups. I think we can put him in a lot of positions. He’ll be fine. Especially down the stretch, I think he’s going to get better and better.
Q: At 21-13 at the All-Star break and 32 games left, do you like how the Mavs are positioned?
A: I actually said in December and January, I think our team is set up to peak later. Like I said, a bunch of older guys, it took us a while to get going. We’re going to get better from month to month and hopefully peak like we did last year in the playoffs and play our best basketball then. There were better players, better individual players. Even in the Finals, they had [Dwyane] Wade and LeBron [James], but we were the better team. We fought for each other.