Nowitzki scored 17 of his 39 points in a scintillating first quarter as the Mavericks completed a three-game sweep of their Western Conference first-round series, holding on for a 115-102 victory over the Timberwolves.
The fourth-seeded Mavericks advanced to the conference semifinals for the second straight year and await the winner of the series between top-seeded Sacramento and eighth-seeded Utah.
"I love our team and I'm confident we can play well and beat either Utah or Sacramento," Dallas coach Don Nelson said.
"We can play with confidence against either team," Nowitzki added. "Sacramento is the best home team in the league, but we played them tough in their place. We're trying to go all the way this year. We're deep enough and talented enough, so why not?" It was the sixth straight first-round exit for superstar Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves, tying a record set by Portland from 1993-98 and raising questions about Garnett's ability to carry a team. He is 5-18 in the postseason.
"If you look at all of the other teams in the playoffs, their core has been there consistently," Garnett said. "Everey year it seems to be a different blow to us. Look at a time like Utah -- they've been there 30 or 40 years. The only consistency here has been (vice president) Kevin McHale, Flip (coach Flip Saunders), myself and Sam Mitchell."
"We need to grow together," guard Chauncey Billups said. "We lost some games this year due to inexperience, and I accounted for some of that. The only way you get better is if you stay together. Hopefully, we'll all be back in this locker room next year. I know everyone wants to be back."
While Garnett's problems continue, Nowitzki has become a playoff monster. He had 17 rebounds as he posted his fourth straight 30-15 game. And he wasted no time setting a tone, making 6-of-6 shots in the opening period as Dallas raced to a 40-28 lead.
"He is a matchup nightmare," Minnesota guard Wally Szczerbiak said. "He had 39 points and hit some really tough shots."
"It's about winning, not scoring," Nowitzki said. "You do whatever it takes to win. Whether it's score 40 points or 20 points, winning is what matters."
The Mavericks led by as many as 20 points before the Timberwolves made one final run on their home floor, closing within 104-101 on a free throw by Garnett with 4:04 to play.
But forward Eduardo Najera, often overlooked among the Mavs' many offensive stars, made three straight big plays. He drew a charge, dove to the floor for a steal and put home a follow shot to stop Minnesota's momentum. Najera helped hold Garnett without a basket over the final 10 minutes.
"I thought Najera made the play of the game a la Dave Cowens in Boston Garden, diving on the floor and getting a big steal," Nelson said. "Then he got a big putback basket."
Michael Finley scored 30 points and Steve Nash added 25 and 11 assists for Dallas, which has won playoff series in consecutive seasons for the first time in club history.
"Dirk was our MVP and our superstar this series, with Mike being a close second," Nash said. "But there are a lot of performances, and a lot of hustle and a lot of energy." Garnett had 22 points and 17 rebounds despite some foul trouble. Szczerbiak and Anthony Peeler added 20 points apiece for Minnesota.
Nowitzki ended a 10-0 run by the Wolves with a fadeaway jumper, giving the Mavs a 99-85 lead. But Minnesota kept coming as Szczerbiak made two free throws, a 3-pointer and a jumper before Garnett's free throw made it a one-possession game.
After Najera drew an offensive foul from Billups, he broke up a 2-on-1 fast break, diving to a loose ball and calling timeout after Szczerbiak lost his dribble. At the other end, Finley missed a short jumper that was put home by Najera with 2:36 to go.
"I knew I had Nick (Van Exel) on my side, so I didn't panic to get it," Szczerbiak said. "I just wanted to grab it and restart the offense. Then Najera made a great play to grab it and get the timeout."
"(Nelson) kept me in the game in the fourth quarter, so I had a chance to do a few things," Najera said. "I just did what I do most of the time."
A 3-pointer by Nash and jumper by Nowitzki sealed it.
"That shot that Steve hit really put a nail in the coffin," Saunders said. "A pull-up three when you're up five with 1:05 to go -- that dictated how they played, their aggressiveness."
Dallas more than matched Minnesota's early energy, shooting 64 percent (14-of-22) in the first quarter. Saunders lost his cool early in the second period and had to be restrained by his assistants. Nash made the technical foul shot and Nowitzki hit two from the line for a 49-30 bulge with 9:53 left.
Minnesota closed to 67-57 at halftime but stumbled again in the third quarter. Finley scored 13 points in the period, including six in a row to push the lead to 95-77 in the final minute. Nowitzki added two free throws, giving the Mavs their largest lead.
"I knew the first and third quarters were the most important parts of the game," Finley said. "I took it upon myself to be the aggressor. Coach called my number, and I hit some shots."
Dallas shot 45 percent (35-of-78), including 13-of-24 from the arc, and made 32-of-35 free throws.
Billups scored 16 points for Minnesota, which shot 43 percent (32-of-74) and took 44 free throws, making just 30.