Starting again, Dirk still pondering one more year

DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki, who has received farewell tributes in arenas around the NBA this season, has never ruled out returning for a 22nd campaign with the Mavericks.

While Nowitzki maintains that he won't make a final decision until this summer, holding off on retirement now seems more realistic than it has at any point this season. That's because he feels better physically than he has since he underwent ankle surgery last spring, and the Mavs' future appears bright thanks to rookie star Luka Doncic's emergence and the recent trade for Kristaps Porzingis.

"I'd love to be there for the young guys one more year, but I think it depends on how the body feels," Nowitzki said after producing 11 points, five rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes during Wednesday's 110-101 win over the Indiana Pacers. "I've had some issues, obviously, this year. I had some knee swelling here the last few weeks, actually before the All-Star break, so it's not all great. But like I said, I am feeling better. I am feeling a little stronger.

"I think I'm going to make that decision later on, but I think the future's bright. I think Luka and KP, if they stay healthy, stay together, they should be a great combo. They should play great off each other. Both have an incredible skill set for their size, incredible playmaking ability for their size. They should jell well, but we have to see how it goes next year."

The 40-year-old Nowitzki, who set an NBA record for seasons played with one franchise, missed the first 26 games of the season due to an inflamed tendon in his left foot, which was related to the surgery he had to remove bone spurs in that ankle. He was a shell of himself for weeks after his return, scoring in double figures only three times before the All-Star break.

Nowitzki has scored in double figures the past three games, his first three starts of the season. He has averaged 12.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 24.3 minutes in that span, after previously not logging more than 18 minutes in a game this season.

"I feel like I have a little more pep in my step," said Nowitzki, who hit a pair of 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to help the Mavs pad their lead over the Pacers. "My legs and my wind are a lot better than [earlier in the season]. I just feel better overall. I feel like I can actually contribute, whereas earlier I was struggling just to get up and down."

Nowitzki spent most of the season coming off the bench consistently for the first time since he was a rookie. That decision was originally made in large part due to the signing of DeAndre Jordan, who was traded to the New York Knicks in the Porzingis deal, to start at center. Nowitzki also wasn't physically capable of playing significant minutes until recently.

"He has worked for it," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He has earned these opportunities to start. It's great to see him in a rhythm."

Nowitzki frequently says "the sky's the limit" for Doncic, who spent the final night of his teens putting up 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against the Pacers. Nowitzki is similarly enamored with the potential of Porzingis, who will miss all of this season while working on his body coming off a torn ACL suffered last February.

Porzingis, who considered Nowitzki an idol while a kid, has quietly lobbied the 14-time All-Star to come back next season so they can play together. It's a consideration for Nowitzki, but his focus now is on the daily grind required to give himself a chance to finish this season on a high note.

"I was hoping to feel like this usually in November and December, when that first month of the season is over, but those eight weeks, seven weeks that I missed with an inflamed tendon really messed up the entire season for me," Nowitzki said. "But you can't cry about it. I've got to keep working and hopefully feel better and better as the season goes on. I'm going to keep working on days off, come in and do my lifts, do some extra cardio and some shooting, to finish the season even stronger."