Dirk vs. Duncan: 'Showcase' for two all-time greats

DALLAS -- Forget about the seedings for a second. Savor what we are about to witness.

The Dallas Mavericks meeting the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs means we get the treat of watching living legends Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan compete against each other.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. In fact, it’s happened five times, with mixed results and many magnificent performances by two Lone Star State, one-team superstars. But there’s no guarantee we’ll see it again, no matter how good the all-time greats look in their golden years.

They don't necessarily match up against each other most of the time when the Mavs and Spurs play, but this is a historic occasion that should be appreciated by basketball fans around the world, not just up and down Interstate 35.

"It’s a showcase for two of the 12 greatest players of all time," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "Both of those guys have been more than 10-time All-Stars, league MVP and Finals MVP. There’s only a dozen guys that have done that and you got two of them. They still play like they’re in their prime, both those guys.

"So this is a treat for people who appreciate NBA basketball and the history of the game. You got two guys whose love and respect for the game is so high and their work ethic and standards are so high that they’ve kept it going in their mid-30s as well as anybody I’ve ever seen."

These are men who belong to even more exclusive clubs than the one mentioned by Carlisle. Nowitzki joins Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit as the only players in NBA history with career playoff averages of at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. Duncan, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal are the only players to claim at least three Finals MVP awards.

It’s a tribute to their immense pride, competitiveness and work ethic that they haven’t already hung up their sneakers, having long ago assured themselves of basketball immortality and a ceremony in Springfield, Mass.

"Both guys have a great love and respect for the game and always put winning first," Carlisle said. "Beyond that, it's their ability and their internal drive to keep playing when, really, it would be easy for either one of them to say, 'I've done enough.'"

Make no mistake, however: These aren’t legends who are limping to the finish line of their Hall of Fame careers. The 37-year-old Duncan and 35-year-old Nowitzki have fared remarkably well in their fights against Father Time despite both dealing with some knee problems in recent years.

Perhaps they aren’t the same players who put up such eye-popping numbers in some of their epic playoff clashes of years past. (Game 5 of the 2001 West semifinals, Game 1 of the 2003 West finals and the classic Game 7 of the 2006 West semifinals immediately come to mind.)

"There’s been some fun battles," Nowitzki said.

But Duncan and Nowitzki still remain among the league’s elite. ESPN’s real plus-minus stat ranked Nowitzki as the No. 4 player in the NBA this season, 13 spots ahead of Duncan. Nowitzki, who demands as much defensive attention as ever, made his 12th All-Star appearance this season, during which he averaged 21.7 points per game. Duncan had a decent case for his 15th All-Star selection by putting up 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds and playing dominant defense.

Never mind their numbers, though. All you need to know is that the 16-year veteran Nowitzki and 17-year veteran Duncan are focal points for playoff teams. Nowitzki is the lone All-Star for the 49-win Mavs. Duncan is the second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and defensive anchor of the 62-20 Spurs, who had the league’s best record in the regular season.

And they’ve done it with the kind of class and professionalism that has resulted in such strong mutual respect developing between the rivals over the years.

"I mean, I like him," Nowitzki said. "I think he’s about as quiet of a superstar as you can get, and, obviously, I’m not the rah-rah guy for my 16 years, either. We’re both pretty laid back and go about our business. We didn’t try to make a brand out of our names. We’re just trying to go out there and win games and compete.

"I think we both go about our business the same way, and that’s what I like about him."

Starting Sunday in San Antonio, Duncan and Nowitzki will go about the business of trying to beat each other once again, maybe for the final time in the postseason.

What’s not to like about that?