The older we all get and the older Dirk Nowitzki gets, the harder it sometimes is to remember how truly great he was.
There will always be a group of basketball nuts that will remember the specific greatness of Dirk, but we’re slowly creeping into the territory where a lot of fans, younger specifically, don’t really know much of Dirk except that 1. he used to be really good and 2. he’s mostly the older goofy former All-Star that seems really nice and likes to clown on his oldness.
It’s only nature. “What have you done for me lately” is a human thing and we’re always predisposed to care more about things that are happening right now, in front of our faces, than things we saw a long time ago or only saw through second-hand accounts — stories, videos, etc.
So here’s the thing about Dirk — he was clutch as hell. For anyone who has watched the Mavericks over the last 20 years, that’s the most obvious statement possible. But years of weird narratives around Dirk’s game and only winning a title somewhat late into his career caused some fuzzy memories over what Dirk could and couldn’t do.
The thing about Dirk’s clutch-ness, was the ability of it all to seem so preordained. It always seemed like Dirk decided how a game was going to go down, instead of the game flowing naturally to its conclusion. Once Dirk decided enough was enough, he’d rip out your soul.
For Mavs fans, the feeling of a Dirk explosion was universal — we’d sit up in our seats whether in the arena, at home or at a bar. A weird mixture of calm and ecstasy would wash over us, since we knew Dirk was about to do his thing. But the pure excitement of one player basically single handily turning a loss into a win is still some serious sports sensory overload.
As for the people rooting against Dirk, it was always that groan. I’ll always remember that groan. The one that says “oh shit, we’re getting Dirked.”
This is just a long-winded way of me saying that what Luka Doncic did against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night was the first time I felt that same feeling I’d get from Dirk regularly years ago from a player who isn’t Dirk.
The Mavericks had no business winning against the Rockets on Saturday. In the fourth quarter the offense had melted down into slop and the defense couldn’t get a handle on the James Harden experience. They were down 104-92 with less than three minutes remaining.
What Doncic did on the next four possessions shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise. Last month against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Doncic basically willed the Mavericks to tie the game in the final five minutes, only for Wesley Matthews to fart his brain out and the Mavericks to lose.
Either way, Doncic still had his signature moment. It felt a lot like Dirk’s, with Doncic’s step-back threes feeling like the surest shot in all of basketball. The mannerisms felt the same too, with Doncic giving exasperated looks after the first makes (he was way off before the fourth quarter), barking after a tough make in the paint and then pure celebration after the final three.
Of course, Luka does it in his own way. While Dirk always needed at least some help from his teammates to get him the ball, Luka does all this while basically playing point. He doesn’t need a guard to throw him good entry passes because he’s the entry pass. He can start and finish possessions as effortlessly as a 10-year veteran point guard with the flair of a big-time closer. While the moments of Dirk grabbing the rebound the walking into a three-pointer were special, with Luka they seem exceedingly ordinary. It’s just what he does, not a special trick he pulls out a few times a game.
The hardest part about describing Luka’s game isn’t about how good he is now (he’s really good!) it’s predicting how good he’s going to be in five years. Dirk was a notoriously slow starter, being a relative unknown in Europe before stepping up to wildly greater competition in the NBA. It took Dirk a few seasons before he morphed into the player he was for his whole career.
Luka is 19 and in his first season is putting up numbers Dirk didn’t touch until his third season. What does Luka look like next year? In three years? When scouts talked of Luka and how quickly he would adapt to the NBA game, a lot of it was because of how great a passer he is. Luka’s only averaging around four assists a game. The craziest thing about Luka Doncic is that it still feels like he’s only scraping at his potential, despite putting up numbers that are likely better than a lot of people even dreamed of.
He’s now shooting 14-of-22 (63.6 percent) in the clutch this season, which is the most efficient mark of any player that has attempted at least 20 shots in the clutch next to Victor Oladipo. That’s probably the greatest Dirk trait Doncic has, the ability to shrug off a rough start and finish strong.
To think, Mavericks fans might get another 20 years of this. Spoiled doesn’t convey the feeling strongly enough.