DALLAS -- The big German just needs some help.
Dirk Nowitzki, at the ripe old age of 37, keeps doing everything in his power to drag the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs. Yet their postseason hopes have been dwindling lately despite the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history being in the midst of one of his best statistical stretches since the Mavs’ title season five years ago.
Make it eight straight games with 20-plus points for Nowitzki, who last had such a streak in February and March of 2011. His performance Sunday was his finest so far this season, as he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone as the only players in NBA history to score 40 points in a game at such an advanced age.
On this occasion, Nowitzki was able to enjoy his offensive magnificence, a recent rarity considering the Mavs had lost seven of their previous eight games. That’s because Nowitzki got the necessary help to pull out a much-needed 132-120 overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers, clinching the season tiebreaker for Dallas, which pulled back to .500 and within a half-game of the sixth-place Blazers in the Western Conference standings.
“We owe it to him,” Mavs point guard Deron Williams said. “That’s what we’re here for. I don’t think if you asked him at the beginning of the season, he expected to be playing this many minutes and putting up this type of numbers, but that’s what’s had to happen for us to even have a chance. We’d like to get him some more help. Hopefully, we can continue to do that.”
Nowitzki poured in 40 points on 16-of-26 shooting, highlighted by a personal 8-0 run during a 52-second flurry to put the game away in overtime, but he didn’t include himself among the game’s heroes. The longtime face of the franchise singled out a former All-Star point guard and a rarely used 29-year-old rookie center for that praise.
Williams had one of the best statistical performances of his career, setting season highs with 31 points and 16 assists. He had only one previous 30-point, 15-assist game: in December 2010 for the Utah Jazz. There had been only two in Mavs history, both by Jason Kidd during his first stint in Dallas.
Salah Mejri, who had played a grand total of 12 minutes in March, was the other dominant force Sunday for the Mavs. He established career highs in rebounds (14) and blocks (six) during a 13-point performance and was an eye-popping plus-30 in 33 minutes off the bench.
“D-Will set it all up with his aggressiveness and taking guys off the dribble,” Nowitzki said. “He was in a great rhythm today. Salah really changed the game for us today. So I think this game has a couple of heroes.”
Williams, who previous season scoring high was 30 in a Dec. 1 overtime win in Portland, knew the Mavs needed him to be especially aggressive Sunday because of Chandler Parsons’ absence. Parsons, who had been the Mavs’ most effective offensive weapon not named Nowitzki since fully recovering from offseason knee surgery, sat out due to a sore right hamstring that makes his status for Wednesday’s rematch in Portland uncertain.
Williams, whose significant dip in production had been a factor in the Mavs’ struggles since the All-Star break, responded by lighting up the Blazers for 12 points in the first quarter. Dallas still trailed by 11 after a dozen defensively disastrous minutes, during which coach Rick Carlisle used 11 players, desperately searching for a spark.
Forced away from the small-ball lineup he started the previous three games because of Parsons’ injury, Carlisle found that spark with Mejri. The 7-foot-2 rookie was a lanky bundle of energy in the second quarter, when he sat only 39 seconds, scoring five points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots.
Dallas entered halftime up three points. They exited halftime with Mejri replacing veteran Zaza Pachulia in the starting lineup.
Mejri kept up the energy and activity as the Mavs lit up the scoreboard, with Nowitzki and Williams leading the way and Wesley Matthews busting out of a shooting slump with a 15-point outing in which he was 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
Mejri wasn’t perfect by any stretch near the end of regulation -- missing a pair of free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining and the score tied -- but Carlisle stuck with him for overtime. It stands to reason that Mejri would have a significant role, if not start, with these teams meet again Wednesday.
“Salah’s kept himself ready,” Carlisle said. “The stars aligned for a difference-making performance. Are there any guarantees? Hell no.”
Offensive brilliance from Nowitzki still seems to be pretty close to a guarantee. The 18-year veteran has averaged 22.7 points on 51 percent shooting since his weeklong beach vacation during the extended All-Star break.
“He just keeps on doing it,” said Williams, who had 17 points and 11 assists after halftime. “Father Time can’t catch up with him. He put us on his back offensively, hit some huge shots to put the game away. I would say I’m surprised, but I’m not because he’s been doing it all season.”
Added Carlisle: “Never underestimate greatness at any age. That’s what I always say about guys like him. It’s not like he’s just an older guy who happened to have a good game. He’s been doing this on a somewhat consistent basis all year, coming up with a monster game. We’ve all got to enjoy whatever time we have left to watch him, whatever number of years it is, because it’ll go by quickly. You won’t see another one like this -- ever.”
Dallas is desperately trying to extend this season for Nowitzki beyond mid-April. He’s doing his part. His teammates stepped up Sunday to get a win the Mavs had to have.