SALT LAKE CITY -- The feeling never gets old for the German geezer. If anything, Dirk Nowitzki appreciates these moments now more than ever.
The Dallas Mavericks clinched a playoff spot Monday, with a 101-92 win over the Utah Jazz on a night when the living legend delivered a classic Dirk high-stakes performance. The 37-year-old scored 22 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and even came up with a big blocked shot.
As Nowitzki was quick to mention, the Mavs have plenty of work to do. They can climb as high as the fifth seed in the Western Conference with a win and some help Wednesday. They hope to pull off an upset and get out of the first round for the first time since Nowitzki guzzled Champagne in Miami Beach as a champion in 2011.
But accomplishing the mission of making the playoffs was worth savoring. After all, this was the most difficult journey of the 15 times Nowitzki has led the Mavs to the postseason.
"It was a tough season, tough season again," Nowitzki said. "But we've got some guys that are veterans that are tough guys and want to play together and ultimately wanted to make the playoffs, wanted it bad to make a run here. I think not a lot of guys gave us a chance, looking at our roster before the season, [with] two of our main guys coming off major surgery. I saw a lot of websites actually picking us last in the West.
"I think we took that challenge and made the playoffs in the tough West. That's good, but we've been in the playoffs a couple times since the championship, and we're always a first-round exit. Hopefully we'll keep this momentum and see what happens."
The Mavs have momentum in the form of seven wins in their past eight games. That might be seen as a miracle, considering the sorry state of the team just before this run.
Dallas had dropped 10 of 12 games to fall three games under .500 and reached rock-bottom with a humiliating blowout by the Sacramento Kings on March 27. Forward Chandler Parsons had season-ending knee surgery. Point guard Deron Williams was out indefinitely with a sports hernia.
Dallas seemed destined for beach vacations in mid-April -- not a trip to Los Angeles or Oklahoma City or San Antonio for the first round of the playoffs. But here the Mavs are, with a 42-39 record, a proud group of veterans who proved a lot of people wrong with the help of a couple of rookies making timely contributions.
"I think nobody thought we could still make it two weeks ago," said Nowitzki, who has carried the Mavs to 11 consecutive 50-win seasons, two Finals appearances and the 2011 title. "We were three games behind .500. Things didn't look good at all. We were just blown out in [Sacramento]. Just came together, came together as a veteran team, came together and said, ‘No more.'"
It was fitting that the final step featured a fantastic Nowitzki outing in this building, where he got his first taste of the postseason way back in 2001, when he was a peach-fuzz-faced kid competing against then-37-year-old legend Karl Malone as the Mavericks upset the Jazz.
It's silly that for years, Nowitzki was saddled with the perception that he was a soft European. That was a lazy line of thinking that died suddenly after he dominated throughout Dallas' title run. He has raised his Hall of Fame-caliber game to an even higher level for the playoffs on a consistent basis throughout his career.
A 22-point, 11-rebound night is kind of ho-hum for Nowitzki when the stakes are high. After all, he's one of four players in NBA history with career postseason averages of at least 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. So it surprised absolutely nobody associated with the Mavs that Nowitzki came up with his best performance in weeks with a playoff berth there for the taking.
"That's why he still plays," said guard J.J. Barea, the only other player on the Mavs roster who was a member of the championship team. "He still plays for games like this. You can see he loves it. He loves when games are tough and we're away. Especially in games like this, he comes up big. He's having fun."
Plenty of Mavs deserved praise for the win over the Jazz. Williams, who played both ends of a back-to-back after missing eight straight games, was brilliant while being booed throughout the game. He put up 23 points and six assists against the team that drafted him in 2005. Shooting guard Wesley Matthews scored 20 points, including a critical, momentum-killing, shot-clock-beating 3-pointer after the Jazz made a run in the fourth quarter. Barea didn't put up pretty numbers (five points, 2-of-11 shooting, four assists), but the fact that he gutted it out with a strained groin inspired his teammates.
It was Nowitzki, however, who set the tone. He knocked down a midrange jumper when the Mavs ran a play for him on their first possession. He drilled a 3 on the next possession and then made a 3-point pistol with his thumb and two fingers on his right hand and thrust it into the air to celebrate.
Dirk was dialed in.
"I figured from there, it'd be a good night for me," said Nowitzki, whose recent shooting slump is just a memory after he hit seven of 12 shots from the floor and four of seven from 3-point range against the Jazz. "Don't overdo it. I didn't want to get too hyped. I didn't want to hoist up a bunch of bad shots. Our formula has been working."
Nowitzki was referring to the formula of working the shot clock and playing a grinding style, a major adjustment coach Rick Carlisle made when the Mavs' season seemed lost.
But for a generation, Nowitzki has been the main ingredient in this team's formula. That has resulted in 15 playoff appearances, and Dirk isn't finished yet.