DALLAS -- For three quarters Monday night, Dirk Nowitzki looked every day of 37 years old and then some. He was an NBA geezer struggling on the second night of a back-to-back, bricking nine of the 12 shots he hoisted.
Then, after the Dallas Mavericks had blown a 17-point lead, Nowitzki suddenly looked like the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history.
A vintage Nowitzki performance was the featured attraction during the fourth quarter and overtime of the 118-113 win over the scrappy Boston Celtics. Nowitzki scored 21 of his season-high tying 31 points during the final 17 minutes of the Mavs’ much-needed victory.
“I just had to dig deep,” Nowitzki said. “Them taking the lead, it’s just like, you gotta go. You gotta find it somehow.”
How did the big German find a groove after seeming so out of sorts for most of the game? He makes it sound so simple: He got a good screen from center Zaza Pachulia in transition and knocked down a little pull-up jumper after taking one dribble to his left.
“I’ve probably scored about 20,000 of my points on one dribble left,” Nowitzki said. “That was good. Needed that.”
Nowitzki mixed in a couple of nifty post moves -- and an up-and-under he finished with a lefty layup and a turnaround jumper – with the Mavs exploiting mismatches against smaller defenders. He made an and-1 3-pointer, celebrating from the seat of his pants with tongue sticking out and both hands forming three-finger pistols. He was 5-of-5 from the line in the fourth quarter, scoring 14 points in the frame.
That should have been enough to lift Dallas to the win, but the basketball gods apparently wanted more drama, prompting Raymond Felton to commit an otherwise inexplicable foul on Jae Crowder to send the former Maverick to the line for three free throws with the Celtics trailing by three with 6.7 seconds remaining in overtime.
Once again, Nowitzki rose to the occasion. Deron Williams did most of the damage during the extra period, scoring half of his 20 points, but Dirk delivered the daggers: A corner 3 to put the Mavs up seven with 35.9 seconds remaining and four free throws in the final 13.3 seconds to prevent another wild Boston comeback.
The Celtics who were barking at the old man while rallying in the second half were silenced.
“They’re a chippy team,” said Nowitzki, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. “They were talking out there in the second half when they made their run. That always helps motivation. It was just a fun game to be a part of.”
All of Nowitzki’s teammates saw him go 2-of-10 while the Mavs got “housed,” to use his term, by the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night. They saw his shooting struggles continue for three quarters Monday. But not one of them was surprised to see him dominate down the stretch.
“He just had to get loose,” Wesley Matthews said with a laugh. “That’s Dirk. He’s not new to this. He hasn’t been young for a while. He’s still got a lot in the tank, though. He’s still a big shot-maker.”
Added Williams: “That’s what he does, man. Sometimes it takes him a little while to get them legs warmed up. The thing about him, he has that mentality where he can miss 10 shots in a row and then make 10 in a row right after that. He’s going to keep shooting. He doesn’t shy away from it. He loves end of games, crunch time, overtime. That’s when he comes to life.”
And Devin Harris: “When we need him the most, that’s when he shows up. I think that’s the character of who he is.”
This isn’t a case of teammates paying respects to a legend on a rare night that he turned back the clock. The fact of the matter is that Nowitzki, whose vertical leap is a lot lower at this point than his years of NBA experience (18), remains one of the league’s premier crunch-time performers.
The stats don’t lie. According to NBA.com, Nowitzki has the best clutch plus-minus in the league this season, as the Mavs have outscored opponents by 78 points in his 103 minutes on the floor with the score within five points in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. Nowitzki ranks fifth in the league in clutch points with 88 and has scored in efficient fashion, shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from 3-point range. (Williams is the only player among the NBA’s top 10 clutch scoring leaders with better percentages.)
At an age when most legends are limping to the finish line, if not watching from the couch, Nowitzki still dominates with games on the line.
“It’s truly breathtaking, the fact that he can still do that, turn it on like that,” Chandler Parsons said. “He never ceases to amaze me.”
And the Mavs never cease to believe in Nowitzki when they need him most, no matter how bad he’s looked before winning time.