Dirk fighting Father Time in fourth quarters

DALLAS – Father Time is an especially tough foe during fourth quarters.

Dirk Nowitzki, the 12-time All-Star who has more than held his own with the aging process, knows that as well as anyone.

Nowitzki cemented his status as one of the elite NBA closers of his generation by consistently dominating down the stretch of games during the Mavericks’ 2011 title run. He nearly averaged double figures just in fourth quarters (9.9 points per) during that postseason. He shattered silly stereotypes by kicking butt in crunch time at a level few legends have reached, scoring 66 points on 53.6 percent shooting in 49 “clutch” minutes, as defined by the score being within five points in the final five minutes.

It’s a stretch to say Nowitzki has struggled down the stretch since then, but he has if judged by his Hall of Fame standards. At 35, sometimes the legs simply don’t work the way he wants late in games.

“I think it’s just stamina,” Nowitzki said. “You’ve got to attack all game. Then, yeah, maybe your legs are not quite as good as they were 10 years ago.”

Nowitzki’s field goal percentage in the fourth quarter this season (44.1) is his lowest in any frame by a significant margin. Nowitzki has run out of gas in a handful of games in which the Mavs blew big leads, making only four of 24 shots in the floor in the fourth quarter and an overtime period in losses to the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and twice to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nowitzki is scoring in the clutch at a more than respectable clip of 39.2 points per 48 minutes. That’s up from the last two seasons, when Nowitzki dealt with knee problems and related conditioning issues. But his efficiency (40.4 field goal percentage, including 1-of-10 from 3-point range) in those situations this is far from his norm.

“Whatever [the numbers] are, it’s not a whole year sample,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I would reserve judgment until we play the whole year and see what they are then.

“We’re going to have a whole lot more close games, and he’s going to have the ball in his hands. There are times when teams get it out of his hands, and in those situations we got to have other guys make plays.”

It is worth noting that the Mavs are plus-53 in Nowitzki’s 83 clutch minutes this season. In other words, even if he isn’t scoring with great efficiency, his presence on the floor is a major factor in the Mavs’ being an overall good closing team, despite some spectacular collapses.

Carlisle has designed his rotation around carefully managing Nowitzki’s minutes for years. Nowitzki, whose work ethic has always been impeccable, put in extra time this offseason to make sure he was as prepared as possible for the 82-game grind. Under the guidance of Mavs athletic trainer Casey Smith, Nowitzki makes a preventative-maintenance treatment program a priority during the season.

There’s no sensible way to take further steps to make sure the 16-year veteran has as much gas in the tank as possible with games on the line.

“I could rest more,” a frustrated Nowitzki said after going 1-of-4 from the floor in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss to the Miami Heat, “but that’s not going to work.”

Some nights, Father Time is just too tough. But the Mavs will still take their chances with the ball in Nowitzki’s hands when it matters most any night.