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DALLAS — With two and a half minutes remaining in a lost cause, Dirk Nowitzki plodded to the Mavericks’ huddle and hunched over Rick Carlisle’s clipboard. The 37-year-old forward was 39 minutes into a 40-minute outing and noticeably drained from the experience. Nowitzki has a weary way about him toward the end of these long nights. His feet drag when play stops. His head hangs and his stare through the floor grows long. Every little break seems like an exhale, particularly now that all Dirk does seems so arduous.
When the game resumes, however, Nowitzki reanimates. The ball could only go to him. Dallas had posted up Nowitzki throughout the fourth quarter on Saturday night as a matter of necessity, and in this instance Carlisle’s design springs a familiar setup to life. Nowitzki sets a down-screen for Raymond Felton in the same way he’s done for dozens of Maverick guards past, only to then use the momentum of the exchange to follow through to the opposite post. This is a basic device to free up Nowitzki for a catch in one of his favorite spots, from which he can stare down and shoot over almost anyone. Tonight he mixes it up—continuing the loop to make a quick play toward the rim and throw his defender (the formidable Serge Ibaka) off his trail. Nowitzki’s layup is canny, clean, and … off. The exhale comes soon after, this time at the end of a last gasp.
“All you’re thinking, basically, is to make one more push,” Nowitzki said. “Make one more push. Get it under 10. Get it to eight, seven—in striking distance. We had a few plays here and there. We were always right there and then something happens where it just doesn’t go our way.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder won Game 4, 119–108, through the persistent power of that “something.” On many occasions throughout his career, Nowitzki’s best efforts have been undone by the failings of his teammates. On Saturday they were undone by the power of attrition. “They hit us with waves,” Nowitzki said. “Every time we do get [the Thunder lead] down to eight or 10, they’ll come up with a loose ball. They’ll get an offensive rebound. They get their [centers] rolling behind us, laying the ball in uncontested. It just piles up.”
In sum, those little plays can bury a team. Dallas’s roster is in such a state that exceeding expectations isn’t near enough to keep pace. Raymond Felton, who finished with 19 points and 11 assists, was a revelation. Salah Mejri gave Carlisle’s defense its backbone. Wesley Matthews’s 19 points seemed to come by force of will. No play made by Justin Anderson or Devin Harris or Zaza Pachulia came easy, which is just part of what made their dogged resolve so impressive.
Nowitzki’s was as relentless a performance as any. No player his age puts up 27 points on 12-for-21 shooting without staging a full night’s work behind the scenes. Dallas’s ball handlers generally only found room to drive off of Nowitzki’s screens—a device that naturally attracts a ton of defensive attention. Even getting in position to set those screens required that Dirk fight off the holds and shoves of Oklahoma City’s bigs, waging war off the ball in typical playoff fashion. A delay might require that he re-screen, or a particular set may call for him to set several. On those possessions when Nowitzki was actually in line to receive the ball, he would spend time and precious energy working to separate from or seal his defender—only to see his window closed as his perimeter teammates were swarmed by the Thunder’s collective length. The many labors of Dirk began long before he ever received the ball and carried on for long stretches thereafter.
“You see it,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “[Nowitzki is] playing with that fire and that passion at 37, and that’s hard to do in the playoffs. They are posting him up every play, running pin-downs, [he’s] setting screens and defending. He’s doing a lot for them and you have to tip your hat to someone like that. He’s playing great.”
Greatness has its limits. Carlisle generally does all he can to save the legs of his foundational star, but in this series there can be no such luxuries. Without Nowitzki, the offense collapses on itself—lost in the vacuum created by playing two interior bigs with limited offensive skills. So credible is Dirk that his presence brings instant spacing. So respected are his abilities that Ibaka, OKC’s top rim protector, has no choice but to wade out to the perimeter to attend to them. The Thunder did everything in their power to ensure that Nowitzki wouldn’t beat them, and yet he went on to produce enough offense to at least make the prospect feasible. That weight wore on Nowitzki, though still he declined rest when he could handle it—in part because he knew the Mavericks couldn’t.
“We’re seeing one of the most special athletes in sports history,” Carlisle said. “And [he’s] doing it at an amazingly high level at, really, an advanced stage of his career. We had to leave him in for those long stretches and I hate doing it because it really is taxing. But it was our only chance to hang in. He didn’t want to come out and he was fighting all the way.”
It wasn’t enough, and it won’t likely be for the remainder of the series. The Mavericks will lose to a better, younger, healthier Thunder team in due time. There’s little satisfaction in that kind of defeat, particularly to a veteran roster. Nowitzki and his teammates, however, have mined from their long-shot series a certain kind of valor. Grant them that—they’ve earned it.