Dirk Nowitzki

It would be natural to expect that the results of the 1-8 and 2-7 matchups would be more predictable than the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in the Western Conference. If the first few games showed anything though, it’s that these series will be intensely close and fiercely competitive, much closer than the seeding might suggest. Let’s take a look at what makes these series so intense.

San Antonio Spurs vs Dallas Mavericks

Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan are facing off for the sixth time in the playoffs. To say that these rivals are familiar with each other and their playing style is a gross understatement. The Spurs, like always, have built a well-refined offensive machine that not only capitalizes on the rejuvenation of the Big Three, but also on the talents of Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green. Popovich has once again put out a team that plays hard and knows how to close games, which was extremely evident in the first game between these two foes. The way the Dallas Mavericks played was no surprise either. As ridiculously and unbelievably efficient as their offense can look at times (ranked No. 2 on Hollinger offensive efficiency rankings), their glaring defensive deficiency limits their ceiling. Up by 10 points with about six points left, the Mavericks couldn’t get a stop as the Spurs switched to another gear. The lineup of Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brandan Wright that featured a net rating of plus 26.6 per 100 possessions in the regular season will probably be something we see a lot more in upcoming games. Whatever happens, a matchup between these two rivals will always be ultra-competitive.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs Memphis Grizzlies

Amidst the Spurs excellence and the Pacers ineptitude, the Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t exactly been the talk of the NBA as of late. Nevertheless, expect Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to comfortably beat the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies might have grabbed game two, but athleticism that the Thunder roster has at the PG, SF, and PF position is just too overwhelming to keep under wraps for a whole series. The Grizzlies’ penchant to play hard on defense will earn them a couple wins, but there just isn’t enough of a scoring punch to keep up with the OKC offense. Ranked 16th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, the Grizzlies need a couple role players, Courtney Lee and Mike Miller, to step up in a huge way to have a real shot in this series. 

Los Angeles Clippers vs Golden State Warriors

This series is bound to have the most entertainment value in the first round of the playoffs. Sparks fly whenever these two in-state rivals play. The two high octane offenses are powered in very different ways- the Warriors through their tremendous shooting prowess and the Clippers through the penetration of Chris Paul and the athleticism of his supporting cast. Despite the Warriors victory in game one, the Clippers are bound to gain eventual control of the series due to one significant reason - the absence of Andrew Bogut. With Bogut, the Warriors have a tremendous defensive anchor capable of guarding Deandre Jordan and controlling the paint. Without him, they have a defense that can’t hold up for the duration of an entire playoff series.

Houston Rockets vs Portland Trailblazers

Dwight Howard came to Houston for one reason - to win championships. After an untimely Rocket collapse in game one, it's time for Howard to step up as the leader of the team to set a tone of urgency. The Rockets have all the talent they need to stop the Trailblazers. But, they can’t let Lamarcus Alridge go off for 45+ points and Damian Lilliard go for 30+ points and still expect to win. The recipe for the Rockets is to get the ball out of the hands of Alridge and Lilliard. In fact, the Trailblazers had the worst bench in the NBA this season. The Rockets must make the Trailblazers pay for their lack of depth.

As Dirk Nowitzki has recently surpassed Jerry West on the all-time scoring list, it is an opportune time to reflect on the greatness that has embodied this legend’s career. Without a doubt, Nowitzki will end up as a Top 10 scorer of all time. He will have forever redefined the power forward position in the NBA. The new crop of elite power forwards — Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin — look nothing like the historically elite power forwards. Their skill set is geared similar to Nowitzki’s, based on finesse, shooting and fine skill rather than brute force.

Let’s take a deeper look into the prowess of Nowitzki. Very recently, Kevin Durant mentioned that “Dirk Nowitzki might be [his] favorite player in the league” and that he has modeled a lot of his game after watching Dirk as a kid. Durant exemplifies the influence of Nowitzki as he has fully solidified the one-legged fadeaway in his own repertoire. But, Nowitzki’s legacy goes just beyond his skill set or his fadeaway. His international influence can be seen by the fact that he will go down as the greatest European basketball player ever. He revitalized the sport of basketball on a continent that was mostly nonchalant to it. The fact that he is a perennial All-Star, a championship winner, and an NBA Finals MVP only adds to his fame.

One of the prerequisites of being an All-Time Great is changing the game of basketball itself. Nowitzki has done more than that. The NBA will never be the same once he retires. It will have lost the greatest big man shooter, father of the fadeaway, the greatest European basketball player, and so much more. Nowitzki will retire as a true legend.

How athletes in different sports have declined

Athletes’ declines come in many different shapes, sizes, and forms. However, there are a few overarching trends that can be drawn from the majority of the cases.

For example, athletes who depend on a skill or trait other than athleticism generally tend to have more profound longevity in their careers than athletes who depend on sheer athleticism or physical dominance in some nature. For example, 34-year-old Dirk Nowitzki has aged much more gracefully than 30-year-old Dwayne Wade has. Whereas Nowitzki arguably reached the peak of his game around 30 to 32 years old, Wade’s game peaked from 25 to 27 years old.

This is most evident in the two head to head NBA Finals matchups between the two athletes. Whereas 24-year-old Wade dominated in a historical fashion while Nowitzki faltered in the 2006 NBA Finals Series, it was 32-year-old Nowitzki who put up the awe-inspiring and historically memorable performance in the 2011 NBA Finals. Wade blossomed early in his career and has already begun to decline as a 30-year-old whereas Nowitzki had arguably reached his prime after the age of 30.

Likewise, in professional tennis, Roger Federer at the age of 31, is still ranked No. 2 and has won a Grand Slam last year. However, Rafael Nadal, at the age of 26, has only accumulated two Grand Slams over the past two years. It is obvious that the rather effortless and gliding game o Federer has aged with a lot more ease than the powerful and physically demanding game of Nadal. Nevertheless, as history has shown us, losing your athleticism is never the end of the story.

Michael Jordan, until the age of 30, dominated the game of basketball with sheer athleticism and being the most physically elite specimen on the court. However, as he aged, his game surprisingly didn’t decline. He modified his game to a more skill-based shooting foundation rather than just physically dominating every opponent. In addition, as he aged, the cerebral development made Jordan more clever and efficient than ever before. Whether it be Nadal or Wade, it is never the end of the story when that physical decline begins to set in. Just take a page out of Jordan’s playbook.

2012-2013 NBA season has been defined by critical injuries

The number of franchises playing without their All-Star players or prospective All-Star players is nearly ludicrous. Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Love (just returned), Ricky Rubio, Danny Granger, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and Amar'e Stoudemire have all missed a significant chunk of the season.

A good team is able to play well with favorable circumstances. But, great teams, the teams that exude championship caliber poise are the ones that muster wins with significant setbacks and injuries.

On the Miami Heat’s road to the 2012 NBA Finals, the Heat had to overcome the absence of their explosive power forward and third scoring option Chris Bosh for several playoff games against the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics. This nearly pushed the Heat to the brink of elimination, but the poise of Lebron James willed them to the ultimate goal.

In the Dallas Maverick’s road to the 2011 NBA Finals, the Mavericks had to overcome a season-ending injury to second-leading scorer Caron Butler. The Mavericks needed other role players Jason Terry and Shawn Marion to step up and eventually produced an outstanding offensive team due to the poise and leadership from veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd.

In the 2010 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics were defeated by the Los Angeles Lakers in a highly contested Game 7, because they could not overcome the loss of defensive anchor and starting center Kendrick Perkins to a PCL tear in Game 6. These moments define the character and makeup of a team’s grit and resilience.

Thus far in the 2012-2013 season, a few teams have illustrated the ability to overlook their losses and continue to fight. A few have not. Let’s take a quick look at these teams.

Dallas Mavericks:

Despite the absence of Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks have maintained a record above .500. OJ Mayo’s timely rise to stardom keeps the Mavericks more than just afloat and right in the midst of the fiery Western Conference playoff hunt.

Philadelphia 76ers:

The 76ers front office fought hard to bring franchise player Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia. However, with Bynum’s knee issues lingering potentially into mid-season, Jrue Holiday had to become the franchise’s savior. He has averaged nearly 18 points and eight assists a game to keep the 76ers afloat until Bynum’s return.

Minnesota Timberwolves:

The Timberwolves probably had the most arduous task -- they had to play without electrifying playmaker Ricky Rubio and their most productive power forward Kevin Love. However, Nikola Peković stepped up in a big way to make up for the rebounding and scoring deficiencies caused by Love’s absence.

Indiana Pacers:

The Pacers should technically be performing the best because of their dependence on a more balanced and collective offensive attack. David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill are all excellent scoring options. However, this team has failed to live up to expectations with a sub .500 record thus far.

Los Angeles Lakers:

The Lakers were confused to say the least while trying to play the Princeton Offense without Nash. However, with the dismissal of Mike Brown and arrival of new coach Mike D’Antoni guiding the offense in LA, the Lakers have managed to win four of their last five.

Chicago Bulls:

Considering that a Rose-less Bulls was a .600 team last season, the Bulls going .455 thus far is actually quite disappointing. Perhaps it is becoming evident that the Bulls cannot compete in a superstar league without their own superstar.

New York Knicks:

The best team in the NBA thus far. They have done this without All-Star power forward Amar'e Stoudemire. Quite honestly though, they are so much better without Stoudemire. A Knicks team with either Carmelo Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire would fare well. But, a Knicks team with both suffers from severe defensive lapses, rebounding deficiencies and chemistry issues.

The grit and resilience developed through these arduous times often define a team. Only time can tell which of these teams have developed that resilience.

Dallas Mavericks Preview

No team has undergone a more profound roster makeup over the past two years than the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are the only remaining productive pieces from the 2011 NBA Championship team.

The current backcourt of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison screams potential. OJ Mayo, former 2008 #3 draft pick, had averaged nearly 20 points as a starter during his first two seasons in the NBA. Darren Collison averaged nearly 18 points and double digit assists when running the pick and roll offense in New Orleans. Now that these two players are put in positions where they can succeed-OJ Mayo as a starter and Darren Collison utilizing the pick and roll tool in the flow offense he will be commanding, it is quite possible that these players will reach the zenith of their basketball productivity.

The frontcourt of Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Chris Kaman at first glance seems like an outstanding asset. A top-10 player in the league, an elite defender, and a top 5 low-post scorer is not indicative of too much concern. However, it should when Dirk Nowitzki will be absent for the first month of the season, recovering from an arthroscopic surgery, and Chris Kaman is one of the most injury prone centers in the league. It seems like the frontcourt really cannot get any consistency until midseason. That will translate to a lot of initial struggles for the Dallas Mavericks, having to learn to play without an offensive legend in Dirk Nowitzki and then having to put him back into the system. There is certainly a tall order on the Mavericks roster this season.

Last but not least, the bench of Elton Brand, Brandan Wright, Rodrigue Beaubois, Dahntay Jones, and Jae Crowder is a highly effective and variegated unit that complements the starting lineup. This group has gritty defenders, shooters, paint players, veteran experience, and young athleticism to help establish a productive unit. So, let us hope that Rick Carlisle will somehow mesh these pieces in the right manner to extend that streak of twelve consecutive years in the NBA playoffs. Let us hope. 

Nowitzki leads furious comeback, emerging as all-time great competitor

Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki pumps his fist as Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade falls on the floor at the end of the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball game Thursday, in Miami. The Mavericks defeated the Heat 95-93. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki pumps his fist as Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade falls on the floor at the end of the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball game Thursday, in Miami. The Mavericks defeated the Heat 95-93. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

When Dwyane Wade sunk that three pointer from the corner of the floor with around seven
minutes to go, I was already preparing to write a post on his greatness. A player with 36 points,
six assists, five rebounds, and seemingly enough monster dunks to fill an entire dorm room full
of posters, deserves all the media credit. But alas, Dwyane Wade, your efforts, as valiant as they
were, were nothing compared to the dramatic conclusion the Mavericks wrote at the end of this
would-be laugher of a game.

I’ve used a lot of words to describe Dirk Nowitzki in my lifetime. Of the ones that can actually
be mentioned for the world to see, the list includes adjectives like soft, cry-baby, flopper, one-
dimensional, choke-artist and boring, just to name a few. Giving him credit for any victory at any
time in his career was sacrilegious for me. In the past, I would have said Miami collapsed rather
than Dallas mounted a true comeback. But after last night I had to take a long hard look at myself
in the mirror to come to grips with the truth — Dirk Nowitzki is a true competitor.

Sure, he still flops like a fish out of water, only plays defense when he wants to, and didn’t quite
show up until the second half of the game yesterday, but you could see how much he wanted,
nay, needed yesterday’s game. The haunting memory of the epic Finals loss four years ago to a
very different looking Heat team is engrained in the back of his mind. He won’t even watch a
single game from that series.

So the fact that Nowitzki ended the game with an elementary left-handed lay-up after a stellar
move to get around Chris Bosh, was the icing on the cake to the Mavs’ 15-point, seven-minute
comeback. He’s a fundamental player with a fundamental problem eluding him from entering
the discussion as one of the game’s best to ever play: he needs a ring. But he is certainly close.
Yesterday he took an underdog Mavericks team by the leash, and helped them cap off a 22-5 run,
including the team’s last nine, over the last seven minutes of the game.

Jason Terry, the Mavericks’ only remaining player from the 2006 Finals debacle, looked at
Nowitzki in the huddle right after Wade’s huge three and told him he didn’t want to go out like
that. He didn’t want to see Miami take this veteran team and dunk over them, celebrate after
every shot, and jam the lead down the Mavericks’ throats. He pleaded for Dirk to help save them,
and the Big German responded, hurt left hand and all.

On paper, his stat line was average: 24 points, 11 rebounds and a block. It was more of a been-
there-done-that type of game for him. But each one of those points, especially the last nine, were
fueled by the notion that he can’t be counted out. That despite all his team's post-season failures,
despite his lack of flair, despite his continual inability to groom himself, Dirk Nowitzki will not
let his team lose without a dogfight. Not again. Not to the Heat.

Russell Westbrook scored 29 points, Kevin Durant added 26 in an off-shooting performance and the Oklahoma City Thunder clawed out a 102-99 victory over defending champion Dallas on Monday night to take a 2-0 lead in the first-round playoff series.

Durant hit two free throws with 50.4 seconds left to give Oklahoma City a 98-97 lead, and James Harden hit four more foul shots to close it out for the Thunder.

Jason Terry missed two 3-point attempts from the left wing in the final five seconds that could have tied it.

Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas with 31 points and Shawn Marion scored 15. The Mavericks led in the closing minutes of both road games but couldn’t even manage a split.

Game 3 is Thursday night in Dallas.

Durant put the Thunder ahead to stay after salvaging two key points with Oklahoma City inbounding the ball with only 2.6 seconds left on the shot clock. He grabbed the inbounds pass from Harden while headed toward the sideline, and Terry was called for a foul for bumping him.

Durant hit both foul shots, and Nowitzki missed his chance to answer with a short jumper from the left side at the other end.

Marion fouled Harden on the rebound, and the league’s top scoring reserve — only eight days removed from a concussion as the result of Metta World Peace’s elbow to the head — also converted both free throws. He hit two more with 15.6 seconds left after Terry got the Mavs within one with a driving layup.

After losing both of their home games to Dallas in last year’s Western Conference finals, the Thunder barely got by in the rematch. Durant hit a jumper with 1.5 seconds left to win the first game 99-98 on Saturday night.

Dallas was up seven points with two-and-a-half minutes left in Game 1 and just a point in the final minute of Game 2.

Beforehand, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks downplayed a rivalry blossoming along Interstate Highway 35.

“Right now, they beat us one time last season. I don’t know if that’s considered a rivalry,” he said. “It takes more than one or seasons, but definitely it’s there for the making.”

Maybe he spoke too soon.

When Nowitzki and Perkins finally got back on the court together, the Mavericks’ All-Star exacted some revenge while getting his team back in the game. He went on a personal 10-2 run, with all of the points coming while he was matched up against Perkins, to get the deficit down to 50-47.

The Mavs pulled ahead in the first five minutes of the second half, as the game turned into a foul fest and the Thunder made only one basket in the first seven minutes.

Dallas MavericksÂ’ Dirk Nowitzki reacts in the final minute of the second half of Game 6 of the NBA Finals basketball game against the Miami Heat Sunday in Miami.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MIAMI— Dirk Nowitzki got the Dallas Mavericks to the brink of an NBA championship. His teammates did the rest, a perfect ending for a club that talked all season about its greatest strength being the sum of its parts.

Nowitzki missed 11 of his first 12 shots and matched his series low with 21 points, yet with Jason Terry scoring 27 and every starter and reserve making some sort of significant contribution, the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat 105-95 Sunday night to wrap up the first title in franchise history.

The difference-makers were everywhere: from Ian Mahinmi with his step-back jumper and third quarter buzzer-beater to DeShawn Stevenson and his three 3-pointers in the first half; from Brian Cardinal making a 3 and drawing a charge to J.J. Barea improving to 3-0 as a starter.

“This is a true team,” coach Rick Carlisle said during the jubilant trophy ceremony. “We don’t run fast or jump high. These guys have each other back. This is a phenomenal group.”

Although Nowitzki had only three points at halftime, Dallas was up 53-51. It was a testament to the teammates around him. They knew if they could keep it close, the big German would snap out of his funk.

He did.

Nowitzki made his first shot of the second half and began to find a groove. He went 8 of 15 in the second half, scoring 18 points — and becoming a champion for the first time.

“I couldn’t get in a rhythm today for some reason,” Nowitzki said. “The team carried me all night long. (Terry) came out aggressive. I’ve got to give it up to the fellows. They were unbelievable tonight.”

Not a single player on this roster had won a championship, and that shared burden drove them all season. Nowitzki and Terry lived with the disgust of blowing a nearly 3-0 lead against Miami in the 2006 finals, and Jason Kidd lost consecutive finals with New Jersey in 2002-03. All told, this roster had 133 seasons and zero rings.

The emotions began to hit with 18.8 seconds left and Kidd going to the line. Nowitzki and Terry met at midcourt — right on top of the Heat’s logo — and shared a hug, the smaller Terry leaning on the big German like a child and his dad.

Nowitzki went to near the other free throw line, put a hand on his hip and exhaled. The job was done.

A week shy of his 33rd birthday, the former league MVP finally had the championship he so desperately craved. No longer will he and Kidd be part of the conversation of “best player never to win a ring.”

It’s a lift for the franchise, too. This celebration 31 years in the making was savored by hundreds of Mavericks fans, despite being halfway across the country. They stood in their blue shirts chanting “Let’s Go Mavs.” In Dallas, a packed house watched at the home arena, no doubt going bonkers themselves.

Franchise founder Donald Carter — wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, the one that used to be part of the team’s logo — accepted the trophy from commissioner David Stern at Cuban’s request.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the Western Conference title celebration, Cuban said: “It just feels so good for Dirk and Jason Kidd and (Terry) and Shawn Marion. ... This team has so much heart, so much determination.”

And a championship.

Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) and Dallas Mavericks' Tyson Chandler go after a rebound during the second half of Game 4 of the NBA Finals basketball game Tuesday, June 7, 2011, in Dallas. The Mavericks won the game 86-83 to tie the series at 2-2. (AP Photo/Robyn Beck; Pool)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

DALLAS — Coughing and wheezing, his temperature spiking to 101, worn out from hardly sleeping the night before, Dirk Nowitzki went through three miserable quarters in Game 4 of the NBA finals. Yet the fourth quarter was his time to shine. Again. And now the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat are starting over in the NBA finals, this best-of-7 series reduced to a best-of-three. Nowitzki fought through a sinus infection and everything else that ailed him and his team to power a 21-9 run over the final 10:12, lifting the Mavericks to a memorable 86-83 victory Tuesday night. He scored 10 of his 21 points — including a driving right-handed layup that spun in off the backboard with 14.4 seconds left — and grabbed five of his 11 rebounds in the final period as Dallas pulled off its second stunning finish this series. "Just battle it out," Nowitzki said, sniffing throughout his postgame interview with his warm-up jacket zipped all the way up, still in his uniform instead of changing into street clothes like the NBA prefers. "This is the finals. You have to go out there and compete and try your best for your team. So that's what I did." The Mavs avoided going down 3-1, a deficit no team has ever overcome in the finals, and guaranteed the series will return to Miami for a Game 6 on Sunday night. Game 5 is Thursday night in Dallas, and Nowitzki vowed to be ready. "There's no long term," Nowitzki said. "I'll be all right on Thursday. ... Hopefully I'll get some sleep tonight, take some meds and be ready to go on Thursday." Nowitzki wasn't as dominant as Michael Jordan when he scored 38 points despite a 103-degree fever in Game 5 of the 1997 finals — but it was that kind of performance down the stretch. If the Mavericks wind up winning their first championship, this performance will go down in NBA lore, topping his effort in Game 2, when he bounced back from a torn tendon in the tip of his left middle finger to score the final nine points in Dallas' 22-5 rally, including two left-handed layups. By comparison, consider how meek a healthy LeBron James played Tuesday. James scored only eight points, ending a double-figure scoring streak of 433 consecutive games, regular season and postseason. It was the first time in 90 playoff games that he scored such few points. He made only 3 of 11 shots — a tip-in, a 15-foot jumper and a breakaway dunk. Not only did he not score in the fourth quarter, he took only one shot while playing all 12 minutes. "I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively," said James, who nonetheless contributed nine rebounds and seven assists. "I'm confident in my ability. It's just about going out there and knocking them down." Dwyane Wade led Miami with 32 points, but missed a free throw with 30.1 seconds left and fumbled an inbounds pass with 6.7 seconds left. He knocked the ball back to Mike Miller for a potential tying 3-pointer, but it wasn't even close to hitting the rim. Fans jumped to their feet and began roaring as soon as they could tell the ball was off-target. Dallas players savored it, too, except for Nowitzki, who walked off looking somewhat sullen, obviously ready for a hot shower and a warm bed. The illness hit Monday night. After struggling to get any rest, he showed up for shootaround but hardly did anything. His condition was kept a secret, and he helped keep it that way by hitting his first three shots. Then he missed 10 of 11 and it was obvious something was wrong. The biggest giveaway: he also missed a free throw for the first time since Game 4 of the conference finals. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle tried resting Nowitzki as much as he could. During timeouts, he stayed in his chair as long as possible, trying to conserve every ounce of energy. "You've got a guy that's 7 foot, there's a different kind of toll it takes on your body when you're sick," Carlisle said. "Everyone could tell looking at him that he labored." This series is now more fascinating than ever. After the last two games were decided by two points, the first time that happened in the finals since 1998, this one was decided by three. In many ways, it was the best one yet because of how tight it was throughout. The Heat seemed to have taken control when they led 74-65, their biggest lead of the night. But Dallas went to a zone and Miami struggled. Jason Terry — who kick-started that comeback with six straight points — made consecutive baskets, and the surge was on. Terry ended up capping it with two free throws with 6.7 seconds left that forced Miami to need a 3-pointer. Dallas finally got the balanced scoring attack it wanted. Terry had 17, Shawn Marion 16 and Chandler had 13 points and 16 rebounds. DeShawn Stevenson, who moved to the bench so J.J. Barea could join the starting lineup, scored 11 points for Dallas. Bosh scored 24 points for Miami, but the Heat got little beyond its three superstars. Miller scored six points, Mario Chalmers had five and Haslem and Joel Anthony each scored four points.

Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James fight for position in Game 3.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Dirk Nowitzki is a stone-cold killer.

Yeah, never thought I’d type that.

For the majority of his career, it has been difficult to take Dirk seriously. There are the silly aesthetics: the long mane of goldilocks hair, the mouth guard he chews on like it’s a pacifier, the funny German accent. Then there are the on-the-court issues. Dirk has been considered a soft, finesse player with a puzzling inability to deliver the goods in the postseason. In crunch-time situations, Nowitzki has the reputation of crumbling like dry German strudel.

There was the 2006 NBA Finals choke job. There was the MVP year in 2007 when his Mavs were humiliated by Golden State in the first round of the playoffs. Until this year, Dirk hadn’t made it out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs three of the past four seasons.

That was then, and this is now. Dirk, at the ripe age of 32, has Dallas back in the Finals in a clash against the most talented team in the world. And you know what? He hasn’t backed down.

In Game 2, he led his team on a 15-point comeback, scoring the game-winner on a left-handed scoop shot — hurt finger and all — with four seconds left. It was so uncharacteristically Dirk, the player who had been at the center of a team with a historic propensity for soiling the bed sheets when the stakes are highest.

The Mavericks reaching the Finals this year has been nothing short of odds-defying. It is a roster made up of Dirk — the sweet-shooting, seven-foot giant — and a motley crew of specialists: shooters, stoppers, slashers and distributors. It is arguable that, in every postseason series this year, the Mavericks have been the least talented team each time they have taken the court.

OK, maybe not more talented than a depleted Portland team, but Dallas lacked the star power of the Lakers and the Thunder — two teams it beat in nine games total.

Without Nowitzki, who is averaging 28 points this postseason, the Mavericks are burnt toast.

He is shooting 50 percent from behind the arch, pulling down about eight rebounds a game and playing surprisingly good defense. He’s also shaken off questions about his toughness, playing with an injured finger and often getting to the line — in the first game of the OKC series, Dirk went 24-24 from the stripe. In a losing effort in game three against the Heat, Dirk came one shot short in the Mavs’ 88-86 loss. You can’t blame him too much. He had pulled Dallas out of a hole, scoring 12 straight points to tie the game before Chris Bosh bailed Miami out.

Long thought of as a poor man’s Larry Bird because of the skilled shooting and the obvious Caucasian similarities, Nowitzki is proving right now that he’s maybe good enough to be in a class by himself. He’s a bounce pass and a crossover away from Bird, and he’s not as proven of a winner. But, man, the things Dirk can do on the court — fall-away jumpers, one-legged floaters, spinning flip-shots — have never been seen before. Add to that his dedication to rebuilding his legacy and him dragging his team to an improbable storybook season, and I think we’re talking about Dirk Nowitzki as an all-time great.

Never thought I’d type that either.