DALLAS — If time machines were real, Mark Cuban would have bought one months ago.
There’s no sense lamenting Dirk Nowitzki‘s injury absence for the first 27 games of the season and his rocky return following right knee surgery in the middle of training camp.
The Dallas Mavericks can only hope that their bearded big man’s brilliance this week — culminating with Saturday’s season-high and season-saving 35-point performance in a 100-98 comeback win over the Chicago Bulls — continues as they hit the road for four tough ones. All-in-all, the Mavs have nine games left to steal the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Bulls, playing without Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli, led by 12 with 4:08 to go, by eight with 3:06 to go and by five, 97-92, with 1:27 to go. That’s when Nowitzki, 8-for-8 to start the game and 6-for-7 to finish it, kept hope alive and outscored Chicago 8-1 in the final 54 seconds.
“He’s made a career out of doing that,” Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said.
The sold-out matinee crowd was ready to erupt when Nowitzki stunningly missed a trailing, straightaway 3 with 60 seconds left, what would be his lone misfire of a 15-point final period. But Dallas corralled the rebound and Nowitzki got it back, wide open for a rare corner 3. Bang.
Next possession he victimized second-year guard Jimmy Butler caught in a mismatch. Swish, 98-97 Bulls. An unnerved Butler then gave Dallas a gift, bricking two free throws with 15.9 to go.
The Mavs’ guards have caught plenty of flak for not finding Nowitzki in key situations this season. Not this time.
“We ran a play there that I think confused them a little bit; me, Vince [Carter] and Mike James were kind of all there, running a little action and I think they messed up the switch a little bit,” Nowitzki said. “So one guy was open, I swung it to Vince, then they [the defenders] both ran to him.”
Carter quickly swung it back to Nowitzki just to the left of the top of the arc with the clock ticking down … 5, 4, 3…
“Had a good look and let it fly,” Nowitzki said. “Actually, that one didn’t feel as good coming off my hands, but it helps when you make a lot of shots before that. It kind of snuck in there. It kind of rattled, too.”
Whatever, it dropped with 2.9 seconds to go. And what was minutes away from a terribly disappointing, and likely season-crushing 3-3 homestand, became a momentum-juicer heading into a two-day break and a Tuesday night showdown in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
“It’s kind of like the story of our season, every time people write us off or saying we’re done, for some reason we find a way to hang around. The same happened again today. I thought everybody was thinking this game’s over and we went and found a way to turn it around and save our season. We’ve been able to make this a close race. We’ve had some great wins over the last three weeks and we’re still in the mix.”
Dallas has gotten a little something from up and down the roster during its run to get into contention. Against the Bulls, center Brandan Wright didn’t get the start, but bounced off the bench for 17 points and 13 rebounds. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle made a point to boost O.J. Mayo, who went 1-for-13 shooting, but gutted through 42 minutes lugging around a painful sprained left shoulder. And the defense finally buckled down when it absolutely had to late.
Still, Dallas, suddenly seizing close games it used to let slip away, isn’t sniffing the eighth spot without Nowitzki, claiming his best health of the season, recently returning to All-Star form. That 11-year run came to an end this season, but he hasn’t closed the book on a 13th consecutive playoff berth.
During the just-concluded homestand that improved the Mavs’ March record to 11-4, Nowitzki posted two 30-point games (33 in Tuesday’s overtime win over the Clippers) and averaged 24.0 ppg on 61.5 percent shooting overall and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc.
“You can see him really champing at the bit to get to the eighth spot,” Mayo said. “He’s doing everything in his will to keep us within striking distance.”
His five 3-pointers on six attempts were a season-high and ruined Bulls guard Nate Robinson‘s incredible 25-point game. Robinson connected on his first seven 3-point attempts, including a 32-foot, late-shot-clock heave that put Chicago ahead 93-81 with six minutes left in the game. His corner 3-pointer at the buzzer, though, bounced away, leaving Nowitzki and his Mavs with new life once again.
“The game is 48 minutes and we kept on playing,” said Nowitzki, who tallied his career 12th regular-season game-winner in the final 10 seconds of a game. “Myself, just step into the shots. I mean, really, there’s no other chance. It’s not like somebody else is unbelievably hot. … So just going to let it all hang out and see what happens.”
When Nowitzki does that, you just never know.