From eight to six to nine to one, and now, to two. Despite a successful war of attrition Dirk Nowitzki has been waging against time, small signs scattered throughout each season are a reminder that even the eternal Nowitzki can't win in the end. The declining number of his 30-point games seems as good as measure as any.
On Wednesday, Nowitzki notched another -- the 241st of his career and second of the season. His 31-point outing against the Boston Celtics on Jan. 18 had already matched 2015's total, but Wednesday's sensational showing pushed him past. But despite his efforts, Dirk's 33 points on wildly efficient 10-of-16 shooting only amounted to a 116-103 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, dropping Dallas into the seventh seed in the Western Conference with six losses in their last eight games.
The Mavericks had won the past four times Nowitzki scored at least 30, and the loss on Wednesday had to feel like a waste. Dirk's shining moments are viewed more incrementally now: a huge made shot in the clutch, a timely defensive play, a vintage quarter. You can't view the 37-year-old with the same presumptive gaze that you did years ago, when superstardom had been transferred upon him and torrid scoring nights were expected.
So on the rare occasions Dirk does channel that bright-eyed, fresh-legged version of himself, Dallas ought to win. On Wednesday, they didn't, beginning the third quarter down six points before allowing the Thunder to begin the frame with 15 unanswered points. By the time the shellshocked Mavericks regained any semblance of an offense, the game might as well have been over.
"I don't look at the standings that much," said Rick Carlisle, despite his team dropping past Portland with the loss. "I'm looking at how we're playing. I didn't like the way we played in the first and the fourth quarter tonight -- and those are pretty important quarters."
Carlisle, a man who likely considers the second and third quarters to be important as well, has seen Nowitzki's long-standing excellence since taking over on the sidelines in 2008. But Wednesday's showing was just as incredible to newcomers, too -- even someone as new as David Lee, who made his Mavericks debut after clearing waivers and signing with the team on Monday.
"I've had an appreciation for him a long time, way before I played along side him (tonight)," Lee said. "I know how hard of a job he has, and there's very few guys in the league who are true superstars like that, and he's one of them."
Still the Mavericks' leading scorer despite all their attempts to make him otherwise, Nowitzki put together a superstar performance Wednesday to no avail. There's still a grace in his play, a callback to times where he was younger and quicker, a chance for us to briefly convince ourselves that maybe he really immortal. We all know it isn't true, but Wednesday's 33-point outing at least gave us a chance to believe otherwise, to feel the good vibes unhindered by the looming final chapter.
The loss hurts because of the playoff standings, because they've dropped six of eight, because they're suddenly and are seemingly in real danger of dropping out of the playoff picture entirely. But it hurts significantly more because the Mavericks let Dirk down. They've let him down too many damn times over the years, and somehow, it's still happening. How can they be so cruel?
Even worse is that we're experiencing some of Dirk's last moments. It seems all too likely that Nowitzki will perform another 30-point dance or two this season, maybe three or four 30-point outings throughout the rest of 2016, perhaps a couple in 2017. But Dirk's reached the age where we can't possibly know that anymore, and were every moment has become more and more fleeting. The Mavericks lost on Wednesday. They fell in the playoff seedings. They're an unequivocal disaster over the past weeks. All that robs our ability to appreciate yet another timeless Dirk masterpiece.
Let's hope the 242nd time can be different.