'The great Dirk Nowitzki' dominating again

HOUSTON -- He is, as Rick Carlisle described the longtime face of the Dallas Mavericks’ franchise, "the great Dirk Nowitzki."

Perhaps there should be a "still" in that sentence. Better yet, make it an "again."

He’s the great Dirk Nowitzki again.

There’s no doubt that Nowitzki had a couple of down seasons after carrying the Mavs to the franchise’s lone title in 2011. The balky right knee that required arthroscopic surgery before last season slowed down Dirk as well as any defender ever did. He still put up numbers that most power forwards would love to produce, but they were well below his Hall of Fame standards.

This season is different. With a clean bill of health and an upgraded supporting cast, the 35-year-old Nowitzki looks a lot like his old self again. He offered more evidence of that Monday night, lighting up the Houston Rockets for 31 points on 11-of-18 shooting while passing Alex English for 13th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and leading the Mavs to a 111-104 win.

"Nothing seemed to work," Houston coach Kevin McHale said after describing several defensive approaches the Rockets attempted against Nowitzki.

Nowitzki is tied for 12th in the league in scoring this season with 21.5 points per game. That’s a little more than a point below his career average, but he’s a point ahead of his career per-36 minute pace. His shooting percentages -- 49.5 from the floor, 39.2 from 3-point range and 92.1 from the free throw line -- are all better than his career norms, too.

Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, the defensive coordinator on Dallas' title team, said recently that Nowitzki looks "rejuvenated."

"I haven’t seen any signs of decline whatsoever from him," Casey said. "He’s still one of the elite players in our league."

Nowitzki, proud that his hard work to prepare for his 16th season is paying off but ever the perfectionist, sees plenty of room for improvement. Told that Casey thinks he’s back in 2011 form, Nowitzki scoffed off that assessment as "aggressive" and pointed out the key element he considers lacking in his offensive game.

"The driving the ball is what’s missing now," said Nowitzki, as masterful a midrange shooter as has ever played the game. "I do a lot of one, two dribble, up, but I want to get back to driving some more to the basket and getting to the foul line. I don’t think I’m in ’11 shape, but definitely compared to the last two years, I feel a lot better."

Don’t mistake Nowitzki’s modesty for a lack of swagger. You know a guy is confident when he’s consistently calling for the ball in crunch time, as Nowitzki did while scoring on three consecutive post-up possessions to respond to a Rockets run with four minutes remaining in the game.

Nowitzki had 10 points in the fourth quarter, the fourth time in six Dallas victories in December that he’s had double digits in the final frame.

"He’s very confident, and he understands who he is and how he can dominate the game," Mavs sixth man Vince Carter said. "That’s a dangerous player to me, a guy who knows, 'Hey, I might not take you off the dribble, but at the same time, I’m going to score all day.' He has you at his mercy."

As far as Carlisle is concerned, a big part of his job is to do everything possible to give Nowitzki the best opportunity to finish games and the season strong. That’s why Nowitzki averages only 32.8 minutes per game, the lowest since his rookie season other than last season, when he missed the first 27 games while recovering from the knee surgery.

If the Mavs can make the playoffs and have the same ol’ Dirk at power forward, they feel like they at least have a fighter’s chance.

"Look, he’s the franchise," Carlisle said. "He really is. He’s the franchise player."

That’s been true for years. It’s a reason for optimism again.