That prediction feels much safer a couple of days after witnessing the first burst of Dirk dominance during this first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, but it’s not about any anticipated carryover from Nowitzki’s 14-point fourth quarter in Game 5.
It’s based on Nowitzki’s track record of coming up big when the Mavs’ backs are against the wall.
Nowitzki has averaged 28.9 points and 11.4 rebounds in 20 career win-or-go-home games. To put that into perspective, per the Elias Sports Bureau, only five players in NBA history have higher scoring averages when facing elimination (minimum of 10 games).
It would be a stretch to say Nowitzki enjoys these elimination situations. It’s no fun to know that you’re possibly one game away from your season going up in smoke. However, with rare exception, he has responded extraordinarily well to that immense pressure.
“Maybe you’re on the edge a little more,” Nowitzki said. “You don’t even want to think that the long season could actually come to an end tomorrow. You don’t even want to let it cross your mind. You want to stay focused and you kind of want to stay in the moment.”
Nowitzki, one of four members of the postseason-career 25-point, 10-rebound club, has been even better than his playoff- and elimination-game norms in do-or-die situations against the Spurs. He has averaged 31.4 points and 11.2 rebounds, and shot 57.7 percent from the field in five win-or-go-home games against San Antonio.
The Mavs went 3-2 in those games, including a classic Game 7 overtime victory in the 2006 Western Conference semifinals, when Nowitzki had 37 points and 15 rebounds. (He was sidelined by a sore knee when the Spurs eliminated the Mavs in the 2003 West finals.)
The Spurs typically don’t have much trouble putting away their opponent when they have a chance to clinch a series. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Spurs are 30-11 in those situations under Gregg Popovich, a .732 winning percentage that is the best in the NBA for potential clinchers during that span.
As has been the case so often in a Hall of Fame career, Nowitzki has established himself as an exception, a guy who still puts up a ferocious fight when the Spurs get him on the ropes.
“He’s somebody special,” Popovich said, reflecting on Nowitzki’s career as a whole but making a statement that certainly applies to this situation.
Nowitzki’s scoring ranks far down the list of concerns for Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose mantra is that the Mavs must be obsessed with defense, particularly after the Spurs picked them apart with the pick-and-roll in Game 5.
Nevertheless, it would certainly help the Mavs’ cause if Nowitzki followed up his phenomenal fourth quarter with a full game of offensive brilliance.
“I’m going to try to do more of the same: attack when it’s there,” Nowitzki said.
If his track record holds true, Nowitzki will be especially effective with the Mavs fighting to avoid elimination.