DALLAS -- One of the great playoff performers of this generation did it again.
Many will scoff about Nowitzki -- whose legacy probably has taken a hit with the Mavs’ three first-round exits in the last four years -- being mentioned in the same breath of multi-ring guys such as Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan among their era’s premier postseason players. The numbers, however, don’t lie. Nowitzki is one of only four players in NBA history with career playoff averages of at least 25 points and 10 rebounds, joining Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon, so his 28-point, 10-rebound performance in Dallas' 89-81 Game 1 win over Portland certainly wasn’t surprising.
Nowitzki will need a ring -- the only thing missing from his magnificent career -- to be widely recognized for his playoff prowess. And the Mavs will need many more performances like this one, at least in the fourth quarter, to be in position to finally cap a 50-plus-win season with a parade.
The Mavs, who were 2-7 without their superstar this season, know they can count on Nowitzki when it counts most. That was the message his teammates kept giving him as the big German fought threw a painfully ugly first three quarters, during which Dirk had more turnovers (six) than field goals (five).
“For this team, I’ve got to keep going,” Nowitzki said. “My teammates were telling me to keep attacking and things will start happening your way. And that’s what happened.”
As the NBA slogan goes, amazing happened in the fourth quarter for the Mavs’ MVP. Nowitzki scored 18 of his 28 points after checking back in the game with 10:44 remaining.
“He just took over,” Jason Terry said. “We’ve seen it before.”
Portland coach Nate McMillan made it clear that he didn’t appreciate Nowitzki's taking and making 13 free throws in the quarter, which matched the Trail Blazers’ total for the game. Nowitzki, however, earned those freebies with aggressive moves toward the basket.
Nowitzki will always be a finesse player, but that shouldn’t be confused with “soft,” the label that’s followed the 7-footer like a double-team for his entire career.
Wimps don’t go hard to the basket, get knocked flat on their back and get up to calmly swish a pair of free throws in a tight game, as Nowitzki did at one point down the stretch.
Punks don’t ignore their ugly shooting line to drill a 3-pointer from the corner to give the Mavs the lead for good, as Nowitzki did with 4:16 remaining.
Weaklings don’t catch the ball above the free throw line, back down a point guard before spinning past a defender coming to double and drawing contact for an and-1 floater, as Nowitzki did to give the Mavs a two-possession game with 2:36 remaining.
There will always be people who have problems with a power forward whose game is based on finesse, at least until Nowitzki has the hardware to hush those critics. But this is a man whose mental toughness is only questioned by folks who value assumptions over facts.
“When we talk about the importance of persistence on our team, he was a great example of that tonight because it wasn’t going great necessarily the whole game,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “These games are going to test you that way.”
The Mavs don't have to worry about whether Nowitzki can perform under that kind of pressure. He's done it much more often than not throughout the course of his career. That fact just won't ring true to everybody unless Dirk helps deliver 16 playoff wins one year.