DALLAS (AP) As usual, Dirk Nowitzki stayed on the practice court long after the rest of the Dallas players, shooting jumper after jumper on a day between first-round playoff games against Houston.
Never mind that the Mavericks trailed 3-0 in the series.
The 7-foot German was coming off a fourth quarter like so many others in 14 trips to the postseason, scoring 16 of his 34 points in an effort what wasn't good enough to keep Dallas from facing a deficit that's never been overcome in the NBA playoffs.
Never one to concern himself with dim prospects, Nowitzki had another strong finish in Game 4 to help the Mavericks avoid what would have been just the second sweep of his career. Game 5 is Tuesday night in Houston.
''Really, the only thing is that you realize you never know if you're going to be in this position again,'' the 36-year-old Nowitzki said. ''You just never know from year to year.''
There are so many examples he could use. Start with the season after he led the franchise to its only championship in 2011, when owner Mark Cuban dismantled the roster in the name of salary cap relief. A dysfunctional unit was swept by Oklahoma City in 2012, and Dallas hasn't won a playoff series since taking the title.
The Mavericks have had something of a replay this year, with the December trade that brought Rajon Rondo from Boston. The deal failed badly, culminating with coach Rick Carlisle essentially banishing his point guard two games into the playoffs after they clashed during the season.
The move was made in the name of a previously undisclosed back injury, and was a major disruption in the middle of the postseason. Nowitzki went through something similar in 2009, when his girlfriend was arrested at his home on fraud-related charges. The Mavericks were in the middle of a five-game loss to Denver in the second round.
''I've been in this league for 17 years,'' said Nowitzki, the NBA's seventh-leading scorer all time. ''I've even dealt with some personal issues in the playoffs, which was ugly. But like I said, all you have to do is, once you're out there, you shut all that out.''
Dallas also lost Chandler Parsons to a right knee injury after his signing in the offseason became possible because Nowitzki took a significant hometown discount. A three-year deal originally reported to be worth $30 million was actually closer to $25 million, and the Mavericks were essentially counting pennies to clear enough room for Parsons.
''Through his actions, it's pretty clear that he's a guy that sacrifices for winning,'' Carlisle said. ''Having a guy like that is extremely unique and very special. There are others, guys around the league in the history of the league. But there aren't more than a handful.''
He isn't the leading scorer for Dallas for the first time in 15 years. That's Monta Ellis, who was the choice for the potentially season-defining shot and missed with the Mavericks trailing by two in the final seconds of Game 3 against the Rockets.
Ellis leads the team in scoring again in the playoffs, and one of the biggest offseason questions for Dallas is whether the guard comes back if he opts out of his contract, as expected. Either way, Nowitzki will remain as the tone setter, likely for at least the two years remaining on his contract.
''Hey, it's the great Nowitzki, man,'' Carlisle said after the Game 3 effort that wasn't quite enough. ''He's unbelievable - just unbelievable. Unbelievable heart. Unbelievable everything.''
No matter how dire a series might look.