DALLAS -- After almost 15 seasons, folks around these parts should have learned their lesson.
Don’t ever leave a game when Dirk Nowitzki is on the floor, no matter how low the Mavericks’ odds of winning seem. You might miss a legendary performance.
Hundreds of Mavs fans found that out the hard way Saturday afternoon, departing the American Airlines Center after the Chicago Bulls built a dozen-point lead in the fourth quarter. Those in the sellout crowd who stuck around were treated to vintage Dirk clutch dominance.
Nowitzki finished his season-high 35-point performance with the kind of scoring flurry we’ll be talking about long after he’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame. The bearded face of the franchise scored eight points in the final 54 seconds, including the game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing with 2.9 ticks on the clock, to cap a 15-1 closing run.
Mavs 100, Bulls 98.
You had to see Nowitzki celebrate -- arms raised, his thumb-and-two-fingers 3 symbol formed on both hands, screams coming the middle of all that facial hair -- to believe it.
A dozen down with less than five minutes to go against an Eastern Conference playoff team that ranks third in the NBA in scoring defense? That’s not too much of a mountain for the Mavs to climb with their German in a groove.
“It’s kind of like the story of our season, honestly,” said Nowitzki, who was 14-of-17 from the floor and 5-of-6 from 3-point range in the game, 6-of-7 and 3-of-4 in the fourth. “Every time people write us out or say we’re done, for some reason, we find a way to hang around.
“The same happened today. I think everybody was thinking this thing was over, and we found a way to turn it around. The same with our season. Probably three weeks ago, nobody thought we could even make it a close race, and here we are.”
Presumed dead not too long ago, here the Mavs are, scrapping their way into the fight for the West’s final playoff seed despite being 10 games under .500 2½ months ago. Here they are, sitting at 36-37 after winning 11 of 16 games in March, preparing to head out on a huge four-game road trip that begins Tuesday with a must-win game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
And here Dirk is, peaking into playoff form just in time to have a chance to extend the Mavs’ postseason streak (12 years and counting) and make up for what had been the most miserable season of his career.
Dirk doubters have had a heck of a lot of ammo. After all, Nowitzki is 34 years old, missed the season’s first 27 games after getting his right knee scoped and admittedly stunk for several weeks after his return.
However, he’s returned to 2011 title form recently. Just look at his performances in the Mavs’ past two wins, heart-pounders over two playoff-bound teams. He had eight of his 33 points in overtime during Tuesday’s thriller over the Los Angeles Clippers. He one-upped that with eight points over the last three possessions in Saturday’s win over the Bulls.
“Whatever they say we can’t do as a team or he can’t do as a player, he finds a way,” Elton Brand said. “He works at it and finds a way to win. That’s the bottom line.”
Nowitzki found a way Saturday with a shooting showing that was epic even by his standards, making a jaw-dropping hot streak by Chicago’s Nate Robinson (14 of his 25 points early in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter) just a footnote.
“Really, there was no other chance,” Nowitzki said of his crunch-time takeover. “It’s not like somebody else was unbelievably hot. You kind of see how the game is going out there and kind of let it all hang out and see what happens.”
Nowitzki’s most impressive shot might have come a little before the midway point of the fourth quarter, when he banked in a high-arcing, one-legged fadeaway 12-footer with a defender draped all over him. That bucket looked like it’d be irrelevant after the Bulls drained 3s on their next three trips, but the Bulls didn’t score from the floor again, giving Nowitzki a chance to be the hero.
Nowitzki’s most important shots came in that final minute: a 3 from the right corner, a baseline one-legger and the game-winning 3 after a driving Vince Carter drew Luol Deng and dished to Dirk on the left wing.
“He hit some crazy shots, man, and just did what he does,” O.J. Mayo said. “He pulled us through. He’s a cold boy; got ice in his veins.”
It’s the sort of performance we’ve seen so many times from Nowitzki. He now has 12 winning buckets in the final 10 seconds of games during his career, not including the playoffs.
This was the kind of outing Nowitzki had over and over again during the Mavs’ remarkable title run. Two years later, the Mavs need him to keep ‘em coming to make the playoffs.
Doubt Dirk at your own risk.