DALLAS -- These games are a reminder, a warning to the rest of the league from Dirk Nowitzki: I'm still here. Yes, Derrick Rose is the MVP and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have followings that span the miles between Laguna Beach and Biscayne Bay. They have Nike, Adidas, even State Farm in their back pockets. Nowitzki? There's a German bank that shows him the love, but that's about it. "Jump shots," said a Mavericks staffer, "don't sell sneakers."
The Mavs still win games though, which Nowitzki proved yet again on Tuesday, pumping in 48 points on 15 --
"He's a bulldog down low," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's so crafty clever and he has so many awkward shots that go in. There are some shots he made tonight that are undefendable."
The ghosts of Nowitzki's past still chase him, which is why it's sometimes difficult for him to get his due. He's a former MVP, a 10-time All-Star and a unique player in every sense of the word. But he's also the leader of the team that choked away a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals and part of the first No. 1 seed to be ousted by a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven series. Can't win has been a phrase Nowitzki heard often and, up until now, he has not done enough to drown out the words.
He's on his way now though, playing in his first conference finals in five years and showcasing his diverse skills against a team and a player the league has anointed to replace him. Privately, Oklahoma City officials dream of the day Kevin Durant plays like Nowitzki and it's easy to see why. Too often Nowitzki is typecast as a spot-up shooter, a freakishly gifted 7-footer who rains three-pointers. That's just a small part of Nowitzki's game, however, one that becomes less prominent every year.
Nowitzki is a post player, and a good one. Ibaka is 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds of solid muscle; Nowitzki toyed with him like he was a guard caught in a mismatch. When Ibaka jumped, Dirk drove by him. When he gave an inch, Nowitzki shot over him or used a ball fake to draw a foul. With an assist from his longtime trainer, Holger Geschwinder, Nowitzki has rapidly expanded his game. On Tuesday, Brooks went big (Ibaka, Collison, Perkins), small (Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden) and unconventional (Durant) against Nowitzki. Nothing worked.
"We can't foul him as many times," Brooks said. "But he earned them. We fouled him. We have to do a better job of guarding him [and] hopefully he misses a shot every now and then. Tonight, he had a rhythm. I don't think the ball hit the rim."
Nowitzki's teammates talk about a different look in Nowitzki's eye, about a desire to write a new chapter in his career. And they have his back. Shawn Marion (11 points, seven rebounds) battled through a badly bruised nose and Jason Terry (24 points) and J.J. Barea (21) picked Dallas up off the bench. Jason Kidd (three points, 11 assists) had a quiet night, but his defense on Russell Westbrook (20 points on 3-of-15 shooting) was crucial to Dallas' success.
This won't be an easy series for the Mavs, and they know it. For all of Dirk's magic, for the 53.4 percent shooting from the floor, the 39.1 percent shooting from the three-point line and the 94.4 percent from the free throw line, Oklahoma City was down just five late in the fourth quarter. There's no quit in the Thunder, no "just happy to be here" attitude that can affect a young team.
"We have to play better," Rick Carlisle emphasized after the game. That means keeping Durant (40 points) more in check and the Thunder off the free-throw line (43 attempts in Game 1). Carlisle knows Nowitzki will see new looks on Thursday. He will be fronted more, shoved away from the paint and off his cozy left block.
Nowitzki knows it, too. And he is eager for the challenge. The ghosts of his past are fading now, growing dimmer and dimmer with every win. He is three wins from a return trip to the Finals, seven away from that elusive championship. Redemption is almost at hand.