Scene: American Airlines Arena, Miami. Year: 2006. It’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The arena is jammed with tanned fans wearing white t-shirts – just as it will likely be tonight, in the present day, when it will be the site for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. But on this night the crowd is getting more and more nervous as the game wears on, because the Dallas Mavericks – then and now the Heat’s opponent in the Finals – are controlling the game and appear poised to take a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series. And everyone who knows basketball knows that 3-0 leads are insurmountable, and that no NBA team has ever come back from such a deficit.
The face of Dallas is 27-year old Dirk Nowitzki, a blossoming superstar who, a few weeks earlier, had made perhaps the defining play in franchise history: An old-fashioned three-point play in the final seconds to tie Game 7 in San Antonio against the Spurs. In the next series, he averaged 23½ points and 13.1 rebounds per game against the Phoenix Suns to send the Mavs to the Finals for the first time ever. Dirk was about to become the best player on a championship team, just as soon as Game 3 was in the books, anyway.
Now it’s the 4th quarter, and the Heat is listless, down 13 points with six minutes to play. It happens almost in the blink of an eye; suddenly, the home team is sharp, focused. The crowd, the sleeping giant, awakens. The Mavs slowly fall apart. Dirk isn’t terrible in those final six minutes, but he misses his only shot and is whistled for a key offensive foul. With the Mavs down by two, he draws a foul and heads to the line with 3.4 seconds remaining. He’s 9 for 10 in the game. One of the best free throw shooters in the league. 90% during the playoffs and regular season. The first one is good, and the second…miss. Six days later, Miami wins the series in Dallas.
Dirk is now 32 years old, and he knows. He knows that he’s done everything the NBA, accomplished every goal, filled every line on his resume, checked every box – except one. He knows that there are two categories of elite players, that some are destined to live forever in the group of players who were great, but…well, you know. Dirk knows. He knows that MVP awards and All-Star appearances mean nothing when the final judgment is passed. He knows that, fair or unfair, truly elite players must break through that wall, no matter how much of it is out of their control. He knows that people are at this moment saying the exact same things about LeBron James. He knows how fans, the media, and even other players talk about Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and others: Great players, but…well, you know.
Dirk also knows – doesn’t he have to know? – that this may be his last chance. The Mavs of 2011 are the most unlikely of title contenders; many predicted they would lose to Portland in the first round. Two of their most important role players, swingman Caron Butler and guard Rodrigue Beaubois, haven’t played in the playoffs due to injuries. The Mavs best players, other than Dirk, have been Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, two veterans thought to have been washed up years ago. After beating Portland, the Mavs marched on with a stunning sweep of the Lakers and a bruising 5-game takedown of the talented but inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals. Not much more than an afterthought when the regular season ended, Dallas has lost only three games so far in the playoffs.
Most of it has been because of Dirk. He’s taken this postseason and made it his own, even more so than he did in 2006. He’s been pouring in points from all over the court. Against the Lakers, he was a matchup nightmare, opening the floor for shooters like Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic. Against the Thunder, Dirk had a pair of career-defining games: 48 points in Game 1, where he missed only three shots from the field and hit all 24 of his free throws, and 40 points in a crucial Game 4 win, including a variety of near-impossible shots down the stretch. In one sequence, the Thunder tried guarding him with anyone they could find. First Kendrick Perkins, then Serge Ibaka, then Nick Collison. Finally Kevin Durant gave it a shot, but the result was the same. None of them could stop the German.
Now, Dirk and the Mavs are once again on the verge. Once again, Dwyane Wadeand the Heat stand in their way. This time, it’s Dallas who will be the underdog. This time, they will have to figure out who will guard LeBron. Only Dirk and Jason Terry remain from the ’06 Mavericks. Surely Dirk wanted this rematch. Few teams, or players, ever get a second chance like the one that will begin tonight.
To say that Dirk is the face of the Dallas franchise may be an understatement. The Mavericks were the worst team in the NBA for much of the 1990s. Dirk arrived in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, and Dallas returned to the playoffs a year later, for good: they haven’t missed the postseason since. Or won fewer than 50 games in a season. In that span, Dirk himself hasn’t averaged less than 20 points per game. Appeared in every All-Star Game. Won the league MVP award in ’07.
Still, despite stellar numbers in May and June, he could never quite shake the label: Dirk was a Guy Who Couldn’t Get it Done in the Playoffs. Wasn’t tough enough, they said. Didn’t they see his numbers increase across the board? Didn’t they watch him single-handedly beat the Rockets in ’05? Drop 50 on the Suns in ’06? Who else has made the playoffs 10 straight years and averaged 26 points and 10 boards per game? Nobody. When they collapsed against the Warriors in the ’07 playoffs, the whispers began. After another first-round exit for the Mavs in ’10 – for the third time of the previous four seasons – it was set in stone: Dirk was never gonna win the big one. 2006 was his peak, he gave it a good shot, but that was that. Some players are destined for Category 2. Great players, but…well, you know.
It had to be Miami, didn’t it? To some, the Heat embodies everything that is wrong with modern-day basketball, an AAU team come to life in the pros. They’re on a grand experiment, and, so far, it’s working. Dirk and the Mavs represent the last hope of the basketball purists, the ones who believe that a great team can always overcome an opponent with great players. There are also other elements of sentimentality. Dirk is the hardened veteran, taking possibly his last shot at a championship, with the same team that drafted so long ago. Compare that to Chris Bosh, who hadn’t ever been past the first round until a few weeks ago.
Dirk certainly doesn’t need this series to validate his career. He’s a sure Hall-of-Famer, maybe the best international player the NBA has ever seen. Other than the fabled skyhook of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dirk’s fadeaway is the most unblockable shot the NBA has ever seen. We may not ever again see a 7-footer with a similar arsenal of weapons, from his spins and fakes in the post to his ability to drain three-pointers or beat slower defenders off the dribble. Dirk has the handle of a guard, the size of a center, and the scoring ability of a forward. Yeah, maybe he’s not guarding LeBron or Wade, but, then again, Europeans never did play defense, right? If the Mavs can’t pull out this series, Dirk still has a career that most players would envy.
But then again, in that strange, abstract way that superstars are ultimately judged, Dirk needs this series to validate something. He needs it to be part of that group that can never, and will never, be questioned. Yeah, Dan Marino was a great quarterback and everything, but he was no John Elway. Just like Ted Williams was no Joe Dimaggio, just like Karl Malone was no Tim Duncan, just like Alex Ovechkin is no Sidney Crosby. Win one time, and the questions go away for good. Win zero times, and the questions never stop. Yes, Dirk Nowitzki is, was, and will be remembered as a great player. How great? We will know soon enough.