ATLANTA -- The playoffs finally palpable at the end of this strange, lockout-shortened season, Dirk Nowitzki certainly looked like a man in his comfort zone.
After Wednesday's workout in Dallas, Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry stayed 30 minutes longer on the basement practice floor of the American Airlines Center while the rest of the team showered and headed to their flight to Atlanta for Thursday's regular-season finale.
Nowitzki's longtime personal hoops guru, Holger Geschwindner, had the three amigos' full attention as he attempted to teach Terry some sort of Euro hop-step, deep-knee-bend jumper off a pass. It was a move perhaps best left to the 7-foot Nowitzki, whose array of awkwardly leaning, falling and fading jumpers and gawky, lumbering drives have become nothing less than priceless works of art to Dallas Mavericks fans.
With any luck, Terry's shot won't be totally jacked up after that little session.
"I was just listening," Kidd said. "We were just debating what's right and what's wrong, and we believe Holger is right."
Nowitzki just smiled as Terry lunged and shot and missed. Then Nowitzki lunged and shot and swish.
A year earlier, Nowitzki stood at his locker after a late-season game. He was not smiling and his zone didn't seem very comfortable. He was being crowded by a semi-circle of reporters when one asked him a question that for years had served as the dagger plunging through his basketball soul: Why are he and the Mavs so soft?
That question no longer retains legitimacy after Nowitzki outgunned the game's generational of superstars -- the aging Kobe Bryant, the young Kevin Durant and the present-day duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- to win his first championship and NBA Finals MVP.
With a thankful smile that this 66-game grind was nearing its end with Thursday's 106-89 loss at the Atlanta Hawks, Nowitzki was asked a new question as he begins the first title defense of his 14-year career: Are you satisfied?
"Satisfied?" Nowitzki repeated. "It's hard to say what satisfaction means these days. Last year, we won the championship, so anything less than that now is a tough season. Once you've made it to the top, once you saw the excitement of the city and all the franchise, it's hard to basically be a first-round exit the next year. So it's hard to say what satisfaction is now."
Because of the shortened season, the roster alterations coming concurrently with the start of training camp in December, the string of injuries and the Lamar Odom mess, it's been impossible to figure out what this team is or what it can be.
There seems to be an air of confidence that this veteran team can again take down the young and athletically gifted Oklahoma City Thunder when that rematch of the Western Conference finals opens Saturday north of the Red River.
Yet, this is not the 57-win title team that was nails on the road and closed out games with a vengeance. Its record says that over the last 44 games -- more than two-thirds of this season and basically half a normal NBA season -- it is a .500 squad, 22 and 22. They are 13-20 on the road.
"Some of the new guys, it took them a while to get going, and some of them never got going," said Nowitzki, taking an obvious shot at you-know-who. "It is what it is. We've got to move on and let it all hang out in the playoffs. I really like how we competed lately. Like I said, if we play hard and rebound on the defensive end, I still think we're going to be a tough out."
Nowitzki's numbers, like his team's, don't suggest that something brilliant is bubbling now that playoffs are here. He hobbled through the awful start on a swollen knee that brought about his in-season training camp. Charles Barkley bellowed that Father Time had him tied down. Nowitzki rattled off hot streaks and kept firing through cold snaps.
He finished the season with his lowest scoring (21.6 points a game) and rebounding averages (6.8) since his second season in 1999-2000. His 45.7 shooting percentage hasn't been this low since his rookie season.
"I would tell you I think Dirk was still holding a lot back, I really do," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said of Nowitzki's performance during the regular season. "Dirk recognizes what's at stake and where we need to be. I think he was probably the least concerned of all of us of not making the playoffs or anything aberrational happening, and so I think we're going to see a much bigger, better Dirk in the playoffs."
There's really no choice if the title defense is to survive the first first-round ousting since the 2007 Miami Heat.
Dallas' defense, despite the numbers, is not as fearsome as it was a year ago with Tyson Chandler. It is a poor rebounding team and the bench, as lethal as it can be, is not as proven as last season's bunch that are now mostly scattered across the league.
But now this strange regular season -- with all those games crammed together into brutally exhaustive stretches -- is over. The owner has said all along that the Mavs' record, just 36-30, doesn't matter.
Just get in.
They're in and now it's time for the reigning NBA Finals MVP to do his thing.
"I still like where we're at now," Nowitzki said. "We still can be a dangerous team. It's what we talked about all season, get in the playoffs. We just got to let it all rip and see what happens this weekend."