Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki still unsatisfied
For the record, Dirk Nowitzki thinks you're all nuts.
If you think this is the best the 7-foot German has ever played, if this performance leading his Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals via a sweep of defending champion L.A. Lakers is the most sparkling in his 13-year career, then you're suffering from some form of memory loss.
Remember 2006? That was the year Nowitzki and the Mavericks not only toppled the San Antonio Spurs in seven games, but also cruised past the Phoenix Suns – and Nowitzki's good pal and then-league MVP, Steve Nash.
"I actually still think that was my best year in the playoffs," Nowitzki recently told Dallas reporters.
True, the Mavericks also fell to the Miami Heat in those NBA Finals, despite holding a 2-0 series lead.
And that's when questions of Nowitzki's leadership and toughness reverberated, when the basketball world began to wonder aloud whether the face of the Dallas franchise had killer instinct enough to close out on a championship.
But it's also what made Nowitzki what he is now. That is, the heart-and-soul leader of the team playing the best basketball in these NBA playoffs. He's averaging 28.5 points through the Mavericks' first 11 playoff games, shooting a career-high 60 percent from 3-point range. In Tuesday's 121-112 victory over Oklahoma City in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, he was nearly unstoppable, making 10 of his first 11 shots and an NBA playoff record 24 free throws in a row on his way to 48 points.
Most importantly, he's leading the Mavericks with a confidence he's never shown before. That's according to his first coach in the NBA, Don Nelson.
"There's a maturity there and a leadership there that has evolved," Nelson said in an interview this week with ESPN Dallas radio. "This is as good as I've ever seen him as far as leadership goes."
True to his humble nature -- the one that causes onlookers to wonder if he really does have the cutthroat personality and cunning to win it all -- Nowitzki shrugged off praise of newfound leadership abilities in this post-season.
"I think we're kind of doing it by committee," he said.
He points the way both he and point guard Jason Kidd -- perhaps the two most recognized Mavericks -- prefer to lead quietly by example rather than by jumping atop tables and screaming at teammates. He prefers that teammates watch how he performs, how he plays every night, plays hard and practices with as much dedication as ever.
"Leadership-wise, I still pick my spots," Nowitzki said. "I'm still not the most comfortable guy getting up there and holding a 15-minute speech. … But I'm definitely more comfortable with that role than five or six years ago."
Six years ago was when Nowitzki played his best playoff basketball, if all you crazy talent evaluators take him at his word. In those playoffs, Nowitzki averaged 27.0 points on 46.8 percent shooting, 11.7 rebounds -- and even added 2.9 assists.
And when he was still uncomfortable as the team leader, Nowitzki and his Mavericks squandered a 2-0 NBA Finals lead.
Little else has changed for Nowitzki. He has a new coach in Rick Carlisle, who emphasizes an up-tempo offense that suits Nowitzki's free-shooting style. And owner Mark Cuban has always actively sought the right combination of complementary players to reach the next level.
This season, that's Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood anchoring the middle defensively. Jason Terry is still the explosive scorer off the bench. Kidd still runs the show. And the Mavericks are doing it all without an injured Caron Butler, the swingman who was supposed to play a significant role this season until he suffered a ruptured right patellar tendon in January.
But Nowitzki has continued to be the devoted student of basketball, taking off only a month each year before returning to the gym to focus on some aspect of his game. His unorthodox training with mentor Holger Geschwindner from the time he was 16 is the stuff of legends; Nowitzki regularly performed handstands, learned to play the saxophone, read literature, and crouched all the way to the floor before shooting to emphasize his knee bend.
Oh, and he perfected his high release, a maneuver that has made his silky shot from 7-feet nearly impossible to swat.
"That helps now, to this day, when a smaller defender's on me, and I get to my spot where I'm comfortable shooting it," he said. "I know that I can get my shot off basically on anybody, because I know now nobody can get to it."
Nowitzki swears this is not the best he's ever been, even if he's old enough at 32 to have seen his share of defenses, and experienced enough, in his 13th season, to know that the opportunity to advance this far in the playoffs doesn't come often.
Is it newfound leadership that has led him to a season-long team discussion on capitalizing on opportunity? Or maturity? Or simply the passing of calendar pages?
"I was in the Finals in '06, and it took us five years to get back to the Western Conference Finals," Nowitzki said. "So you never know what's going to happen in this league. Injuries happen, like to Caron this year. You want to make the most out of your opportunity you have at hand."
Tonight is the start of Nowitzki's opportunity to prove that everyone's crazy to think this is his best playoff run yet.
The Mavericks' best playoffs is what he prefers.