Dirk: 'Back where I wanted to be'

LOS ANGELES -- Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks are down to one dress rehearsal before the playoffs begin.

They are technically two games remaining on Dallas’ schedule, but you won’t find Nowitzki anywhere near the place he once infamously called “the bad city of Utah” when the Mavs face the Jazz on Monday night.

Nowitzki, center Tyson Chandler and shooting guard Monta Ellis, the Mavs’ starters who haven’t rested a game over the past week, jumped on owner Mark Cuban’s private jet after Sunday’s 120-106 win over what’s left of the Los Angeles Lakers to return to Dallas a night early.

At this point, the Mavs’ priority is getting to the playoffs as fresh and healthy as possible, although reaching 50 wins would be a nice bonus. As far as Nowitzki’s game goes, the playoffs are coming at a perfect time.

The big German went through some tough stretches during his 17th NBA season, but Nowitzki’s jump shot is back to its normal sweet status. He’s in one of his best grooves of the season, averaging 19.4 points on 52.2 percent shooting in the past seven games.

“A lot better than December and January,” Nowitzki said after scoring 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the win over the Lakers. “That was a stretch where nothing seemed to go. Didn’t feel great moving up and down, so I think I worked myself back where I wanted to be coming toward the playoffs.”

The Mavs no longer count on Nowitzki, who won’t lead the team in scoring for the first time since 1999-2000, to carry the offense on a night-to-night basis. The Dallas decision-makers surrounded Nowitzki with capable creators such as Ellis and Chandler Parsons to take that burden off the face of the franchise.

But the Mavs definitely need Dirk to be a knockdown shooter to have a decent chance of pulling off an upset in the playoffs. He has returned to that form at just the right time.

“It’s a great sign for us that he’s caught a rhythm,” point guard Rajon Rondo said after dishing out 11 assists against the Lakers. “He’s been able to shoot the ball extremely well, get to his sweet spots and make teams pay.”

As strange as it sounds, the seventh-leading scorer in NBA history struggled with confidence at times this season.

Perhaps Nowitzki, an admitted pessimist by nature, was too honest with himself about the challenges that come with competing in the NBA at the tender old age of 37. He increased the difficulty by making conditioning a priority over regular-season performance, knowing all along that the plan was to prepare him to peak for the playoffs.

It’s about that time now.

“He got a little confidence back and he feels a little bit better,” guard J. J. Barea said. “I think we’re doing a better job of finding him in the right places, too. We’ve got to get him the ball, and I think we’re finding him more. Hopefully, this carries over into the playoffs. It’s great for him and great for us.”

He’s not quite the Nowitzki of old -- 19 points used to be an off night for him -- and he still tends to look awfully old when trying to play defense. But this is definitely the version of Dirk the Mavs hoped to see in April.

But the boss believes that Nowitzki can give the Mavs a little bit more than he has even lately.

“I’d like to see him more aggressive,” Cuban said before the game. “I think he’s got more than he thinks. But Dirk is amazing in every way, shape or form. I keep trying to tell him what my dad says: Today’s the youngest you’re ever going to be. Play like it. As opposed to thinking what you can’t do, at least try. I’d like to see him do more, but obviously that’s easier for me to say than him to do.”