By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Relaxing at his locker before Tuesday’s big tilt, the galloping MVP front-runner, Kevin Durant, paid homage to the only regular-season MVP — the only Finals MVP — in the house on this night.
He was asked if Dirk Nowitzki really is his favorite player in the game today.
Durant smiled yup, then thought that he’d better call it a tie with Kobe, no hard feelings. Durant certainly wasn’t done with the Dirk question. He marveled at the man’s humility, the instinctual passion to work and work, on the same move, over and over. Durant’s a city kid from D.C., Dirk’s from a German town called Wurzburg, but the two most unique 7-footers walking the earth speak the same language.
“I don’t know him a lot, I don’t know him so well, but, you know, just talking to him here and there, just so humble, puts in a lot of work and goes about his business, man,” Durant said. “Not really a flashy guy, just go out there and drop 30 points easy.”
Thirty-two, thank you.
Dirk went off, each bucket turning a buzzing arena into an unsuspecting time machine. Suddenly it was May, 2011. The old gritty, pump-faking, baseline-spinning, dribble-driving, chest-thumping, fist-pumping Dirk was back. He hopped on the charge early and left a 39-minute trail of destruction in his wake: 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals, four fouls and six turnovers.
In a must-have game for his Dallas Mavericks, the 35-year-old Nowitzki inspired them to victory, 128-119 in overtime. He traded haymakers throughout with Durant, an endurance machine who scored 43 points and played 51 minutes. But Durant had just four shots and five points in the fourth quarter, and he went cold in overtime.
In the last nine days, Nowitzki has dropped 49 points in two games against OKC, and Dallas won both times. Before that, the Mavs hadn’t dumped the Thunder in 11 tries, since 2012, a playoff sweep included.
Tuesday’s game was magnificent, a moment when Nowitzki, dying to breathe in the postseason again, made it known that if he’s going to go down, he’ll go down fighting. Nowitzki is having a solid year, a great year for his age, efficiently averaging 21.3 points and 6.0 rebounds a game. He’s had big nights, too, just less frequently than he once did.
Much has changed since 2011, most notably the Mavericks. The team had a dozen-year playoff string snapped last year. And Nowitzki had the first knee surgery, or any surgery, of his career. He’s become a husband and a father, and with that apparently comes the tidiest haircut of his 16 seasons.
Durant, closing in on his fourth scoring title and bearing down on a first MVP at only age 25, assured everybody that he practices more of Dirk’s moves, not just the one-legged stuff, than anybody realizes. On Tuesday, he just couldn’t stop any of it. Dirk led Durant all over the floor. He stretched him out launching eight 3-point shots. Only two fell in, but the second was a dagger for an eight-point lead with 57 seconds left in OT. Dirk operated down low, patiently, methodically bumping Durant deeper in the box. He stepped in, step-backed, faced-up and pump-, pump-, pump-faked, a movement you could practically see Dirk drilling time and again supervised by his personal coach, mentor and shot doctor from Germany, Holger, Geschwindner.
As it goes, Geschwindner arrived in Dallas on Monday, in the nick of time to crack Dirk’s recent slump that’s had the more worrisome locals dusting off Father Time.
“Hopefully we can carry on, get a couple of shots up tomorrow,” Dirk gushed.
The Mavs and Thunder could meet again next month in the first round. Dallas has at least poked OKC awake if a series does come. But Dirk wasn’t much for looking that far ahead just yet. So he politely talked up the competition.
“We kind of waited on Phoenix the whole season to kind of cast away, but they just keep coming,” Nowitzki said. “They’re just so athletic and they’re well-coached. They’re a fun, fun group to watch. They’re going to keep pushing, and so are we and Memphis.”
Buckle up. Dirk’s not ready to stop the ride just yet.