Commentary

Nowitzki follows NBA title with an exit

Originally Published: September 11, 2011
By Mark Woods | Special to ESPN.com

NowitzkiChristof Koepsel/Getty ImagesPlaying his 102nd game over the past year, Nowitzki exited EuroBasket courtesy of host Lithuania.
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Dirk Nowitzki hugged his teammates, embraced his opponents and accepted the applause of the fans who have celebrated every step of his long and devoted stint with his team.

But unlike in June, he walked off the court with his head bowed and his dreams broken. Germany, requiring victory by 11 points or more, was eliminated from EuroBasket with an 84-75 defeat to Lithuania on Sunday as the tournament hosts progressed into the quarterfinals.

In front of 11,000 screaming, partisan supporters, a Lithuania loss would have brought devastation for an entire nation. For Nowitzki, the end of his hopes of playing in another Olympic Games, this time in London, was no less painful.

He had 16 points and 11 rebounds but could not provide the kind of heroics that helped carry the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA title three months ago. By the end, quite simply, he had nothing left to give.

"Overall, I don't feel I was in the kind of shape I needed to be in here," he acknowledged. "I don't feel I really played a good tournament for us. I missed a lot of shots. Even today, in the fourth quarter, it was a tight game and I had two or three looks that I have got to make."

Held scoreless in the first quarter, Nowitzki urged his compatriots onward as they took their only lead with a 6-0 run in the third quarter. Ahead 41-39, that was as good as it got.

Lithuania, led by 19 from Rimantas Kaukenas and glimpses of dominance from Raptors draftee Jonas Valanciunas, harassed the former NBA Most Valuable Player with double-teams and dared his teammates to come through after the game was tied in the closing minutes.

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/GettyDefended here by Jonas Valanciunas, Dirk Nowitzki was held to 4-for-17 shooting en route to 16 points.
Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman had a game-high 25 points but only five of Germany's players scored in the game. Lithuania, ultimately, was just too good and its youthful energy was just too much for a 33-year-old -- playing his 102nd competitive game inside the past 12 months -- to resist.

"I give him so much credit for having played here," said Germany head coach Dirk Bauermann, whose own tenure in the job has come to its end.

"He had a super short break after winning the NBA championship. Obviously, he wasn't rested and a lot of NBA players wouldn't have played under these circumstances. He dragged himself out here and he gave us everything he had."

Just as Wurzburg's favorite son has done over most of the past 12 summers since he made his international debut at the 1999 EuroBasket. Three years later came what, until recently, was his finest hour, when Germany took the bronze medal at the FIBA world championships in Indianapolis.

At EuroBasket 2005, with a depleted roster, Nowitzki hauled Germany on his back, hitting the game-winning shot in the semifinals against Spain before a loss to Greece in the final, where the crowd in Belgrade handed him an ovation as he walked off the court, standing tall even in defeat.

Kaman was imported to assist the cause but the Clippers center's adopted country could never quite provide Nowitzki with another stellar sidekick from within. While he fulfilled his wish to play in an Olympics, carrying the German flag in Beijing in 2008, his team was overmatched and could finish only 10th.

There will be no second shot in 2012 and Nowitzki made no attempt to hide his disappointment. "It was unfortunate that I couldn't come through for the young guys and help them reach their dream of playing in the Olympic Games," he said.

In eight games in Lithuania, Nowitzki averaged a team-high 19 points per game but in his last appearance here he shot just 4-for-17. It left him on a career total of 967 points in European competition, 27 short of the all-time scoring record of Greek legend Nikos Galis.

He could, of course, secure that historical mark if he opts to return for another tour of duty in next summer's qualifiers for EuroBasket 2013. The assumption, as he enters the veteran stage of his career, has always been that it was Olympics or bust.

Maybe not.

"My gut feeling is that he'll come back," Bauermann said. "I don't think he's done. I think he'll play for Germany again. Not next year, not the year after. But I don't think he's done. "That's his decision but that's my gut feeling."

Nowitzki, as proud a German as he is a Maverick, will listen to his gut but also to his body. This summer has underlined his physical limits. He will rest up now to prepare for the NBA season, when it comes. The defense of the title will take top priority.

There is no urgent rush to confirm or reject Bauermann's prediction. Germany, already grateful, will give him all the time he needs to decide on whether this really was the end of the road.

"I don't know," Nowitzki admitted after the game. "I'll just have to wait and see what the future brings. The fans have been great. I've met so many great people over the years. The journalists have been great to me.

"Basketball's given me a lot of great memories."

Ones which will live long in the mind in Germany and beyond.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, UK, whose work appears regularly in British publications.