Dirk Nowitzki watched as in the waning minutes of Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Raymond Felton hoisted a wide open 3-pointer. The Mavs were still within striking distance, if everything fell right for them.
Of course, these are the 2015-2016 Mavericks. It clanged off the rim.
Dirk, who fought to keep the ball alive prior to Felton launching the shot, just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He jogged back up the court as the Thunder put the game away behind their superior talent.
Dirk did not go quietly. He led the Mavs with 24 points, 17 in the first half, on 37 minutes. Somehow at age 37, Dirk led the Mavericks in scoring during the playoffs again, putting up 20 points per game on almost 50 percent shooting from the field.
Think about that for a second. 20 points per game, 49.4 percent shooting, 37-years-old. His contemporaries still in the league -- Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan -- are either sitting at home or enjoying the spoils of a front office that built a roster with great talent.
Not Dirk. He wasn't at home, and he sure as hell wasn't enjoying the fruits of his front office's labor. The Mavericks were lucky just to be in the playoffs, fighting back from a sub-.500 record late in the season, multiple injuries and getting lucky with young playoff hopefuls New Orleans and Utah not living up to expectations.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. DeAndre Jordan was supposed to usher in a new era, leading a young core with Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews. Zaza Pachulia was supposed to be one of the best backup bigs in the league, not an overwhelmed, 69-game starter. Raymond Felton was supposed to be the fourth guard, not a playoff starter and second-leading playoff scorer.
Nothing went right. Parsons got hurt again. Wes never approached his Portland self except for a few flashes here and there. Deron Williams obliterated his soft reputation from Brooklyn but was sporadic and inconsistent outside of some brilliant clutch moments all season.
Rick Carlisle cobbled together a long list of disappointments and turned that into another playoff appearance. He did it because he's a great coach and also has one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. None of the miracles that happened this season -- the playoffs, the comebacks, the Game 2 win -- would be possible without the steady production of Dirk. Any slippage, and the Mavs would be a tire fire. The 37-year-old had no room for error, and he just delivered another Dirk-like season.
Forget all the bullshit from last night and the series -- the inexplicable crunch time benching of rookie Justin Anderson (harking back to Carlisle's benching of Rodrigue Beaubois in the 2010 playoffs), the over-reliance on the three-guard lineup, the crappy rebounding -- what the Mavs did this season was remarkable, and it only happened because they have one of the most remarkable players the league has ever seen. It's just hard to keep getting excited about this type of remarkable.
Dirk doesn't deserve this. He deserves what Duncan is doing in San Antonio, playing reduced minutes, handing the keys to the franchise to younger players. He's not, and that's because of a combination of front office failure and horrible, rotten luck.
There can be no more excuses, though. This cannot be Dirk's playoff swan song. The Jazz and Pelicans will be back next season ready to shake off disappointments. The Nuggets have something cooking in Denver. The Trail Blazers are only going to get better. The Mavs simply cannot roll back out a similar roster next season, despite the happy feelings and stories of gutsy efforts from the likes of Pachulia, Felton and others. The Mavs need better players. Dirk needs better players.
Luckily, there's a path to get there. Parsons will be back healthy and improved. A year of normal off-season training should get Wes closer to his Portland roots. Anderson is a honest-to-god young player worth keeping. There are a handful of intriguing free agents that aren't in the "hold a meeting, hold your breath" level that the Mavs can pounce on without pinning all their off-season hopes on one player. It's there. It's there to give Dirk one more chance.
I keep waiting every season to see Dirk trail off. To look like Garnett or Kobe or Vince or Pierce. There have been troubling signs -- an off month here or there -- but it hasn't been permanent. However, the clock is ticking. The end of Dirk is near but importantly, it's not here yet. He should be in agony, a mass of aching muscle -- broken, spent unable to move.
Were he an older, normal man, he surely would. Dirk performed like a young man again at times this series.
Give Dirk another chance. It's all we want -- one last ride.