DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki lingered on the bench several seconds longer than his teammates at the end of the timeout. He stared at the floor, head down, towel covering it. Finally, he squirted some water in his face and creaked back out onto the American Airlines Center court.
Thirty-four seconds later, with 6:01 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Dallas Mavericks trailing by double digits, coach Rick Carlisle sent David Lee to the scorer’s table. Carlisle recognized how gassed his 37-year-old star was and wanted to give Nowitzki a quick breather.
But the living legend looked in Carlisle’s eyes and sternly said one word: “No.” Lee checked in for Zaza Pachulia instead.
Never mind how stacked the odds are against the Mavs in this series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a much younger, much healthier, much better team. There was no way Nowitzki, sore knee and all, was going to limp off that floor until all hope was lost for the Mavs.
“It’s just fighting until the end, fighting until it’s over,” Nowitzki said after the 119-108 loss in Saturday’s Game 4 that put the Mavs on the brink of elimination down 3-1. “I felt like my wind was decent enough to kind of battle it through. All you’re thinking basically is just make one more push, make one more push.”
That’s all Nowitzki is thinking at this point in his career: Make one more push, make one more push. The odds, once again, are stacked against him.
Since the summit of Nowitzki’s spectacular career, the 2011 title run when he was the world’s best player for two magical months, the Mavs have failed to get out of the first round. Barring a miracle with a MASH unit -- now Deron Williams looks like he’s done for the season, and center Salah Mejri was added to the Mavs’ lengthy injury list on Saturday night -- that certainly isn’t changing this season.
Nowitzki has left tens of millions of dollars on the table with the hope that the Mavs could spend that money on core pieces that could put him in position to compete for another title. Mark Cuban and the Mavs’ front office couldn’t execute that plan when the Mavs were one of the few teams with ample salary-cap space, so it’s hard to see that changing when most of the league will have room to sign a max free agent this summer.
Maybe the Mavs can get significantly better this summer after having to scrap just to make the playoffs, when they needed a surprising six-game winning streak late in the season. But it’s just as easy to envision talented young teams, such as the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans, bumping Dallas down a few pegs in the West pecking order for the rest of Nowitzki’s career, whether that’s a year or two or three.
In other words, this just might have been the last home playoff game Nowitzki ever plays. If that’s the case, what a way to go out.
This wasn’t just a gutsy outing by the big German, who suffered a bone bruise in his right knee in the opening seconds of Game 2 and joked a day later that it’s not like he moves much anyway after 18 NBA seasons. This was a vintage Dirk performance: 27 points on 12-of-21 shooting and eight rebounds in 40 minutes.
“Hey, we’ve all got to enjoy it while we can,” Carlisle said. “We’re seeing one of the most special athletes in sports history and doing it at an amazingly high level at really an advanced stage in his career.”
Nowitzki, whose scoring proficiency and efficiency at age 37 had been previously accomplished by only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, is still the primary focal point of every Dallas opponent’s defensive game plan. That’s especially true with Chandler Parsons wearing a suit, Williams done less than 90 seconds into the game and J.J. Barea gutting it out on a strained groin but operating in slow motion.
It’s not just the numbers he put up Saturday night, which are pretty close to Nowitzki’s playoff norms throughout his career. Nothing came easy.
Nowitzki made tough shot after tough shot with defenders draped all over him, his last bucket a classic Dirk one-legged fadeaway despite being fouled by Serge Ibaka. He had to fight for every touch, much less every shot. He gave what’s left of the Mavs, a mediocre team even when healthy, a fighting chance against an opponent with championship-caliber talent.
"He's going out there doing everything he can to help his team and you see it,” said Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, one of few players who has the potential to finish his career with more points than Nowitzki, who ranks sixth on the all-time scoring list. “You see it. He's playing with that fire and that passion.
“At 37, it's tough to do in the playoffs what he has to. They're posting him up every play, running him off of pin downs, he's running and setting screens and defending. He's doing a lot for them, so you gotta tip your hat to someone like that. He's playing great."
And this is in a series that the Mavs have a minuscule chance to win. It took a minor miracle for the Mavs to get their lone win. That one-point stunner was sandwiched by two of the three most lopsided losses in franchise history.
But Nowitzki is not about to give up. Competing on a playoff stage is a precious opportunity for him, and who knows how many more times he’ll get that chance? He won’t waste a second, no matter how hard it is for him to drag his 7-foot frame onto the floor.
“That’s why I say he’s the best teammate I’ve ever had, the way he competes, the way he loves to play this game,” said Barea, who took part in that 2011 championship parade with Nowitzki. “He competes no matter what. It’s awesome.”