Playoff form? Dirk: 'I'm just feeling good again'

DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki declared recently that the playoffs have essentially already begun for the Dallas Mavericks.

The big German certainly has looked like postseason Dirk recently.

There were a couple of performances last week that were reminiscent of the 2011 title run, when Nowitzki was an efficient scoring machine and clutch executioner. First, he lit the Los Angeles Clippers up for 33 points, outscoring the West contender in overtime. He followed that up a few days later by dropping 35 on the Chicago Bulls, capping the Mavs’ miraculous comeback with eight points in the final 54 seconds, including the game-winner.

Clearly, this is a case of fuel being poured on the competitive fire of a legend who is a member of the exclusive, four-man 25-point, 10-rebound career postseason club, right?

Actually, Dirk offers a much simpler explanation for his recent return to Hall of Fame form: He’s fully healthy and finally feels like himself again.

“Honestly, it’s just me starting to feel better again,” Nowitzki said. “I was struggling early. Honestly, in a normal season, I’d just be hitting my midseason form, but unfortunately this season I missed (29) games. So this season is already over.

“Instead of me playing good ball in January, February, March right now, the season is unfortunately over. I’m just feeling good again.”

This is one of the instances where the German-to-English translation isn’t entirely accurate. Nowitzki didn’t mean to suggest that Dallas is done fighting when he said the season is already over. He just meant that the regular season is nearly finished.

As Nowitzki said after the Mavs were humiliated in Houston in early March – and most of us considered the thought of Dallas extending its dozen-year postseason streak to be pure fantasy – he’s never given up on anything in his career. He’s darn sure not about to throw in the towel when the Mavs are a win away from shaving and a game and a half back of the West’s final playoff spot with a huge road game against the Los Angeles Lakers next on the schedule.

It’s far from ideal that the Mavs are in position to have to fight for a playoff berth. However, it’s a heck of a lot better than the way things looked for the Mavs after Nowitzki’s extended absence while recovering from preseason knee surgery and his miserable performance after his return.

“It’s obviously fun to always play for something,” Nowitzki said. “If we played for the 12th seed right now, it’d probably be a little different, but this way there’s still something to play for. We’re working every day for it. That’s obviously more fun."

O.J. Mayo’s perspective from the neighboring locker: “You see him really champing at the bit to get to that eighth spot, doing everything in his will to keep us in striking distance. We’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to give him some help.”

It’s not as if Nowitzki’s offensive explosions last week came out of nowhere. He’s one of the primary reasons the Mavs have a puncher’s chance of making the playoffs.

There were flashes of the old Dirk in February, such as his 30-point, 13-rebound showing in a losing effort against the Lakers.

March was by far Nowitzki’s best month of the season, as he averaged 20.0 points while making 53.3 percent of his shots from the floor, including 48.3 percent from 3-point range. Not coincidentally, the Mavs went 11-5 to climb back into the bottom of the West playoff picture.

It’s a far cry from Dirk’s dreadful December, when he rushed back despite his rehab not going well and scored a total of 30 points on 32.4 percent shooting in his first four games, all losses.

“It’s just I feel night and day difference since I came back,” Nowitzki said. “I was dragging. Every step, it wasn’t fun running up and down, and that’s obviously a problem. But I like running again, I like moving, I like getting into the shot, bending my knees. It’s a matter of feeling good again and trying to help the team win.

“It’s sad when you’re out there and your mind wants to make moves in December and January and your body just doesn’t respond right. When you can’t do those moves, that’s just sad. I’m just happy that when my mind sees something now in a split second … and my body’s able to respond and do that move.”

Nowitzki has been an efficient scorer since the All-Star break. However, he’s only recently gotten back to being the no-doubt closer who demands the ball during crunch time and delivers.

That’s proof that he’s broken free of the physical and mental burdens that slowed him for much of this season.

“He’s been battling injuries and people have been saying he’s not the same or whatever,” Brandan Wright said. “But he’s definitely back.”

Too late or just in time?