You wouldn’t necessarily call Dirk the best player in the NBA. Thanks to his newfound popularity, he’s bound to finally jump into top 5 lists, an honor long overdue. Not the best.
Kobe and LeBron can be transcendent, unmatchable, which isn’t quite true of Dirk. Kevin Durant can score from as many places, and sometimes more explosively.
Yet there’s a reason that all three of those guys couldn’t get it done at the end of games, in the playoffs, head-to-head against our guy, and it’s not that all three of them are chokers, or in Kobe’s case too old, or whatever. Kobe’s been taking bad shots for a decade, too.
It’s the Dirk Difference. And the Dirk Difference is that, this last year especially, he elevated his game to the point where defenses have no control over him. He shoots the shot he wants, every time. No one else comes close.
I’ve never seen a guy, in my life, shoot from as many places from the floor—so often 10-18 feet from the basket—and shoot over 50% for a full season. That’s because of this:
Terry swings it to Kidd at the top of the arc, or vice versa, who gets it in to Dirk at the elbow . Or the baseline extend.
Dirk backs you down. He can shoot a shot you can’t guard, whenever. That could happen. No one else has a specific shot that actually can’t be guarded, he does, and it goes in an absurdly high percentage.
If you cheat on it, though, Dirk will simply turn around you and hit an easy layup. Or, sometimes, he’ll lean into you, make the shot anyway and get his free throws.
In the wake of one of the most impressive playoffs in recent memory, nearly everyone was jubilant, respectful and ready to lavish the plaudits so long denied. A couple of people did take the time—not harshly, usually—to point out that numbers-wise Dirk’s amazing postseason actually wasn’t so impressive (but impressive, still!). Dirk himself has had, they said, better postseasons.
Statistically, that’s accurate. In reality, these statements are an insult to basketball.
I’m a guy who’s really pro advanced stats. No luddites here. But no account of how many points Dirk scored can tell you how he scored them. No recounting of his best lines can tell you when those shots went in. There simply are no numbers to describe how every time it mattered, Dirk made the shot. Sometimes more than one.
Take Game 2 against the Heat. You could say that Dirk was 10-22, for 24 points, and say pretty good game. Wade had 36 points, but pretty good, Dirk. However, there’s no stat that will tell you that, in the last five minutes, with a 15 point lead, Wade missed three long three-pointers, while Dirk went 4-4 for 9 points. Even if there was, there would be no stat that told you that Dirk hit the tying bucket, the go-ahead bucket, and the winning bucket all within 57 seconds. As well as the bucket which brought it within two in the first place. It was breathtaking.
There would be no stat that told you that Dirk scored what should have been the game-winning three-pointer with 26 seconds left, but Jason Terry left Chalmers wide open to tie it two seconds later, so Dirk went ahead and made a layup with 3 seconds left, just so it stayed won. Two game-winners in 26 seconds. There's no stat for that.
Did the same thing in game 4 against the Thunder. Yes, his 12-20 for 40 points dents the stat sheet some anyway. But that’s not going to tell you anything about another 15 point deficit, with 5 minutes left, another 4-4 spree for 10 points.
There won’t be a number that will tell you that when Russell Westbrook made a two-pointer with 2:30 left to give a ten-point lead, apparently on route to a 2-2 split in the series, Dirk lined up a three-pointer ten seconds later that didn’t come close to the rim, then followed it with two long jumpers and two clutch free throws to send it into OT, where it’d be won.
Certainly his 9-27 for 21 points in Game 6 against the Heat won’t tell you that he scored 18 of those in the second half, and NOTHING will tell you that the Heat, rather than folding in the fourth scored 18 points in the last 7:30 of the game, only to see Dirk score 10 of his own in that span to keep that lead just as comfortable as we all remember it being. That's not even a narrative that exists now, but it's true. The Heat fought like crazy to get to a game 7. Dirk said no.
And numbers won’t tell you that even that one shot, that one game-winner he missed, the only one in the entire playoffs that I can remember, came after he scored 12 points in 5 minutes to tie the thing up in the first place.
His postseason looks great. There’s nothing pedestrian about his 27.7 scoring average in the playoffs, 2nd only to Kevin Durant. But no stat will tell you that he played Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—the NBA’s 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th scorers in the regular season, as well as encompassing basically everybody’s vote for who IS the best player in the league—and out produced them all, head-to-head, except for Wade, whose 27.4 narrowly edged Dirk’s 25.8. Without a finger injury or a 100 degree fever.
And if Dirk scored over thirty only once in the Finals, Dwyane Wade, who did it a couple of times, would be much happier if instead he had this statistic: the lowest Dirk scored in the fourth quarter in the series was 8 points. He scored 10 or more 4 times in 6 games.
There's no ppq, no last five minutes PER that could put in relief what we just witnessed. Ultimately, when they talk about the greatest postseasons of all time, they’re going to want to mention this one, i have no doubt about that. They were all there and they all saw it. Among the great postseasons of all-time, however, your 27.7 on 49% shooting, 46% from three, 94% from the charity stripe, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists is going to be up there, but not WAY up there if you know what I mean.
Those of us who saw it will have a different story to tell. And we’ll just have to remember. What i'll remember is that in the last ten years, at least, I have never seen a player impose his will at the end of games like Dirk Werner Nowitzki did in every round of the 2010-2011 playoffs. No player was ever more immaculate at the most important times, and no player has, by themselves, dominated play like this, that I can remember besides Shaq in quite some time. Other people scored a lot of points. Other people scored with efficiency. Other people made great plays.
In the last five minutes of every game, for this one postseason, Dirk Nowitzki was damn near infallible. I've never seen that before, I never expect to see it again, just over and over and over, nearly every game. It may not be in the box score, but it was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.
Whether the numbers do it full justice or not.