- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki recorded his first double-double of the season, and surpassed the 30-point mark in the process. He grabbed 13 rebounds and dunked for the only the second time this season. He played his best game of the season. Easily.
And it still wasn't good enough.
Now, do you understand the problem with this team? It's just not good enough.
Good teams find a way to win. Teams like the Mavs usually find a way to lose.
The Los Angeles Lakers prevailed 103-99 Sunday afternoon in a game every bit as close as the final score. The Mavs remain 4.5 games behind Houston, currently the eighth seed in the Western Conference, in their quest for a 13th consecutive playoff berth.
Time is quickly running out.
Only 27 games remain and the Mavs are still five games under .500. Pretty soon the math alone will tell the tale of the Mavs playoff futility. Dallas probably needs 44 wins to have a realistic opportunity to make the playoffs, which means they'd need to go 19-8 the rest of the season.
"It always comes back to if I was in this shape all season long we'd be right there or in the playoffs, but I wasn't," said Dirk, who missed the season's first 27 games recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
"I missed almost two months. I've been fighting back for a long time and that didn't help. Now, we're in this situation, we have to make the best of it and keep battling. We have a lot of big games coming up."
After Tuesday's game against Milwaukee, the Mavs will play seven of their next eight games on the road. Five will be against teams currently above .500. Just so you know, Dallas is 9-19 on the road this season.
The only solace for the Mavs and coach Rick Carlisle is that each game Dirk is playing more like an All-Star than an aging veteran.
Dirk scored 25 against New Orleans on Friday. He dropped 30 on the Lakers, and he was efficient doing it, making 11 of 19 field goal attempts, including each of his four three-point attempts.
It marked the first time since Jan. 5-7 that Dirk had scored 20 points or more in consecutive games. For a dude with a 22.7 career scoring average that's hard to believe.
The reason for the improvement is simple. He's getting healthier, so he's moving more fluidly. He can cut harder and there's more lift on his jumper because his legs are stronger. His endurance has improved, another reason why he can hit long jumpers in the fourth quarter.
He even attacked the basket a few times Sunday against the Lakers, something he hasn't been doing. You gotta trust your legs to drive from the free throw lane to the bucket.
"Look at his last several games. He's playing great. He's playing at that high standard level," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I don't want to play him 38 and one-half minutes, but with national TV and long timeouts, he looked like he was fresher and that's important going forward."
Only twice this season has Dirk played more than the 38 minutes he logged against the Lakers. That's important because Carlisle knows Dirk must be the epicenter of the offense if the Mavs are going to make this improbably playoff run. Of course, it's an unfair burden for a 34-year-old player, but Dirk accepts the responsibility.
Most of all, he feels capable of dominating. Ask any player, professional sports is about confidence.
Dirk feels good about his health and his game.
Like most great players, Dirk remains his worst critic.
"As I feel better I'll be more aggressive and shoot and attack when I get the ball," he said. "I can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket and play my game that I have over 15 years."
The Mavs needed the best Dirk could offer on an afternoon, where Kobe Bryant played magnificently.
He made 13 of 21 shots, including four of five three-pointers, and eight of 10 free throws. On this day, a 30-foot jumper for Kobe was no different than a free throw.
"He's the best player in my decade here," Dirk said. "He's the one player I love to watch."
Dirk played well enough to help the Mavs win a game they needed. The difference: Kobe received more help.
So the Lakers won, while the Mavs wasted Dirk's best game of the season.