There was no smile, no bold words for the camera, no excess emotion from Dirk Nowitzki, following the Mavericks' Game 5 victory of the Oklahoma City as the Western Conference Champion Trophy was presented to the players and coaches at halfcourt. In fact, Dirk not so subtly slipped out of the view of the main TV camera, hanging around only briefly before being one of the first to make his way to the locker room.
This was not Dirk's spotlight. He'd been here before. A trip to the Finals was no longer held the magical appeal it once had. Just ask him: "I was already thinking about the Finals", he said, interviewed after about why he skipped out so early. After failing in 2006, and the subsequent playoff losses which seemed to rid any chance of a return trip, only one thing is going to satisfy Dirk Nowitzki -- a NBA Championship.
He's better, clearly, than every before. Dirk's averaging 28.4 points per game in these playoffs, shooting 51% from the floor and from the three point line. He lit up Oklahoma City for two 40 point games. He missed just one free throw in the Lakers series, and just two against the Thunder. He's hit clutch shots and free throws in seemingly every game, including the go ahead three pointer just last night in Game 5 to beat Kevin Durant and company. The shots he makes are insanely difficult, yet they splash in with such frequency that you'd think the NBA expanded the rims. No, he's just that good, much to the dismay of any forward who has had the unfortunate task of trying to guard him.
But Dirk has also matured. He's reading defenses and double teams so much better than previous playoff runs, and though his assist total may not show it, his teammates' production is. Dirk is making the right pass at the right time to result in an open three or a easy seam to penetrate, even though it often takes two passes for this to occur. There's very few doubles which catch Dirk at surprise, and fewer still that actually force a mistake or an inadvisable attempt. He does not even have to see the double to make the right pass. Dirk simply does what he needs to help the Mavericks; if that is making the right pass trusting the open three point shooter to make his shot, then Dirk has no more hesitation than he does pulling up for an open transition three.
He's also recognizing mismatches. At seven foot, and having a shooter's touch rivaling, well, everyone, Dirk seems to finally understand something: he's a mismatch for anyone. In the past, Dirk has struggled with smaller defenders who could match his quickness, or with long defenders who could still contest his release. Not anymore. Every defender can be exploited somehow, and he's become better and better at recognizing what he needs to do.
Finally, Dirk knows its time. The Mavericks have had golden opportunities to win their first title in the past ten years. They haven't. Years of disappointment. Us fans know what its been, but imagine what Dirk feels. Sometimes its easy to look at players like Josh Howard and just pretend that none of the players care as much as the fans do. For players who hold parties during a playoff series days after talking about his marijuana usage, then that's probably true. But Dirk has spent countless hours refining his game, spent days studying the game, and for years has laid everything he has on the line each and every game.
Dirk will be 33 in June. He took charge in the sweep of Kobe Bryant's Lakers. Kobe is just a few months younger, and his dominant run appears to be drawing to a close. Dirk knows that it won't be long until its the Mavericks who are being swept and being called done. Hell, let's be honest: people have been saying it about the Mavericks for years. Eventually, they will be right. The Mavericks are the third oldest team in the league, and when you consider who actually plays, they are easily the leader. The clock is ticking.
Nowitzki's play is at one of the highest levels anyone has ever seen. What he is doing on the basketball court has never been seen before for a seven footer. In fact, very few players, regardless of their height, have ever shot like he has. To go along with his play, though, Dirk has matured from the repeated disappointments. He knows that now is his time, and he plans on doing whatever is necessary to make sure this opportunity is not squandered either.
I wouldn't bet against him.