MIAMI -- Honest as ever, Dirk Nowitzki isn't afraid to look right into the camera and admit that he really didn't expect to be here when the season started.
South Beach for the NBA Finals?
With the Dallas Mavericks granted coast-to-coast permission to rent the Cowboys' famed mantle of America's Team while they're matched up with the villainous Heat?
Nowitzki couldn't have even fathomed a fantasy like that when he agreed to that new $80 million contract at Mark Cuban's house in July.
"I didn't think that it was gonna be in the first year right away that we'd be back in the Finals," Nowitzki said, recalling the night he told his emotional boss he'd be staying for four more years.
Expectations were modest back then in Big D. Like everyone else on the NBA map, Nowitzki and Cuban watched with envy and dread as LeBron James and Chris Bosh fled to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and form a potential superpower: Team Free-Agent Summit.
Nowitzki's phone, meanwhile, didn't ring once from outside the 214 area code.
Apparently so convinced that they had no shot at prying him away from Cuban and the only team and town Nowitzki has ever known in his American life, none of the league's other 29 teams dared to put a call in.
"Zero," Dirk said over the weekend.
The stark contrast between the star who stayed and the three stars who hooked up on the shores of Biscayne Bay is one of the primary subplots of the 2011 Finals, which begin Tuesday night at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena with either James or Nowitzki poised to win his first ring. The other biggie: Nowitzki and his Mavs are back on the big stage after five long years, too thrilled to protest the fact that they've been forced to return to the demon-infested scene of the most painful week in franchise history to try again for their first-ever championship.
"I look at it this way: I would have played anybody in the Finals," Nowitzki insists. "If you look at the last five years, how we struggled it's been so hard to get back to that stage that I would have played anybody -- wherever -- at this point.
"So it happens to be Miami again, and we'll take it."
The only pushback coming from Nowitzki lately is his dismay with the notion that he's only just arrived this postseason as a prime-time playoff performer. That's the narrative Nowitzki rejects, pointing to his standing alongside the Hall of Fame trio of Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit as the only players in league history to average 25 points and 10 rebounds in their playoff careers.
"It's almost a little funny to me to see how people are all of sudden saying I'm a changed guy," Nowitzki said. "I've been averaging 25 and 10 for 10 years in the playoffs, so it's not like this just came overnight."
The differences between 2011 Dirk and 2006 Dirk -- who couldn't prevent the Mavericks' implosion as they inched to the brink of a 3-0 Finals lead over the Heat -- are far more subtle than stark. To pinpoint the five changes that matter most to Nowitzki's game five years later and his basketball fortunes in his 13th NBA season, this is how they break down: