Nowitzki defies NBA conventions with steady improvement
Dirk Nowitzki is trying to turn his 13th season with the Mavericks into his best
Coaches often say veteran players aren't likely to change; not with Nowitzki
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Years of playoff misery have given rise to Dirk Nowitzki as we see him today. As recently as one year ago he was being bottled up by a Spurs defense that forced the ball out of his hands while clamping off the deep shooting of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. That opening-round loss was Nowitzki's third in four years, as his Mavs had gone 10-21 in the playoffs since taking a flimsy 2-0 lead over Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals.
Now he stands one round away from returning to the Finals, and a potential rematch with the Heat. But his Game 2 loss at home Thursday vacated home-court advantage to the Thunder, whose star forward Kevin Durant is a younger and more athletic version of Nowitzki -- an exceptional shooter whose length creates mismatches.
The reason Nowitzki may yet prevail -- the reason he is more effective than ever -- is because he has flouted NBA gravity. Most big men move further away from the basket as they grow older, preferring to settle for jump shots rather than to fight for position inside. Nowitzki, at 32, has made a Hall of Fame career of betraying such conventions. He entered the league as a 7-footer with unprecedented range out to the three-point line, and as he has aged he has improved his game around the paint. He is now one of the best back-to-the-basket scorers in the league, able to back his way in, drive and scoop with either hand or hit fall-away, mid-range jumpers that recall the devastating step-back game of Larry Bird.
There was always the question of whether Nowitzki could lead a team to the championship while playing from the perimeter. It was the issue he faced for much of his career, and his style was condemned -- fairly or not -- when the Mavs lost four straight to Miami to surrender the Finals five years ago. But no one can accuse him of being a finesse "4" anymore. In an era when too many big men aren't much interested in a stodgy education in footwork and up-and-under moves, Nowitzki has steadily improved in the least attractive and most important fundamentals offensively.
It's an emphatic demonstration of his passion for the game. Now, many are commenting on how Nowitzki is suddenly showing fiery leadership of the Mavs, when in truth he's been expressing himself in this way for years. It has been a long time since he worried about confronting a teammate on the court after a mistake has been made. He isn't above arguing vehemently with referees or provoking altercations with opponents (an ongoing rivalry with the Hornets' David West is one example), and for a number of years now he has been celebrating big baskets to fire up himself and his teammates.
Few All-Stars are positioning themselves to be knocked down more often toward the end of their careers than at the beginning. Nowitzki has always had this fire in him. He and best friend Steve Nash would play and compete for hours after practice when each was trying to make his way with the Mavs more than a decade ago. When Nash left Dallas as a free agent to sign with Phoenix in 2004, Nowitzki was obviously frustrated. To this day he calls it a mistake, while wondering how many championships might have been won by a duo that owns the three MVPs awarded from 2005 to '07.
But Nash's departure also forced Nowitzki to explore his leadership skills as he continued to add depth to his game. The Mavs are now realizing his full potential. His love for the game is affirmed by his inclination to play for Germany in the Olympics or other summer championships -- something he may choose to do again after this postseason.
In this Year Of LeBron, Nowitzki may yet prove to be the most successful free agent for this season. Credit the Mavs for continuing to invest in him and a system that has evolved around his unique set of talents. Now the mission is to win at least one game in Oklahoma City, which is not beyond the range of an experienced Mavs team that led the league (alongside Miami) with 28 wins on the road this season.
NBA coaches like to say that players aren't likely to change fundamentally after a few years in the league. But that view doesn't apply to Nowitzki, who is trying to turn his 13th season into his best. He hasn't stopped improving because he hasn't been afraid to explore the hardest assignments. The game's least conventional star has complemented his three-point shooting with a post-up game that is as good as any in the world -- and that hunger to improve may be the most surprising and important of all Nowitzki's attributes.
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