For the majority of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, he’s been labeled soft. Why? Just look at his body of work. There’s nothing about him that looks imposing or intimidating.
He is a 7-footer who prefers to play away from the basket and settle for jump shots rather than drive in for power dunks. He goes down faster than Michael Spinks on the first sign of physical contact, and he doesn’t seem interested in pushing back. And when Nowitzki goes to his patented fadeaway jumpers, he looks like a baby horse trying to walk for the first time and is about as graceful as Master P in “Dancing With the Stars.”
What compounds matters is the fact that Nowitzki experienced two epic failures in the NBA playoffs: blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals and getting knocked out by eighth-seeded Golden State in the first round of the 2007 Western Conference playoffs. It wasn’t because he lost in the postseason, it was the way he lost. Both times Nowitzki and Mavs were bullied physically and they folded like tents. Those two major collapses, more than anything else, have defined Nowitzki’s career so far, and the only way he can erase them is to win an NBA title.
“The year after went to The Finals, we won 70 games and then we ran into a hot team that was a bad matchup for us. Next thing you know, you’re a first-round exit,” Nowitzki said. “In this league, you never know. It took a long five years to finally get back to this stage. It’s good to be back and hopefully we can make the most out of it.”
Nowitzki added: “A lot has been made about my legacy. I’m not worried about all that. I’m trying to be on the best team; I trying to win for this organization, for the owner, for myself and for the team. That’s really all I’m worried about. I’m not worried about my legacy without a ring, or with the ring. I live in the moment.”
Dirk may say he’s not worried about his basketball legacy, but let’sget real here. Any NBA player who strives to be the best is absolutely concerned about his legacy. It’s all about the ring, and that’s the reason why Dirk is still pushing himself because he’s still chasing that elusive ring. It’s the very reason why he has elevated his game to new heights this season – his 13th in the NBA – and has gotten better as a vocal leader and playoff performer.
Heat guard Dwyane Wade, the MVP of the 2006 Finals, has been impressed with Nowitzki’s evolution as a player during the past five years especially the way the Mavericks star has risen to the occasion when it matters most.
“I thought he was good then. Now he’s phenomenal,” Wade said of Nowitzki, who is 10-0 against the Heat in the regular season since the 2006 Finals.
“Obviously, his shot-making ability, it’s one of the best this league has seen. What he has gotten better at is taking over games in the fourth quarter,” Wade said. “What’s phenomenal is he’s very efficient. You’ll see a game with Dirk when he’s 8-for-14, but it seems like he’s taking more shots. He just makes big shots. I think he’s a smarter player, I think he’s a hungrier player and even more efficient player than he was in ’06.”
Nowitzki has carried the Mavs back to the NBA Finals with a postseason comparable to the game’s greats. In 15 playoff games in 2011, Nowitzki averaged 28 points, 7.5 rebounds and shot 51% percent from the field and from 3-point range. Nothing “soft” about those numbers.
His two 40-point games in the conference finals against the Thunder was stuff of legends. He saved his best in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in Oklahoma City when his team was down by 15 with under three minutes left. He swished 3-pointers, dropped off-balance fadeaway jumpers even with Nick Collison draped all over him and buried crucial free throws. Simply, he refused to lose that game and he willed his team to victory.
Nowitzki is a man on a mission and now standing in his way are Wade and the Miami Heat, the team that basically slapped the “soft” label on his face. What better way to conquer demons than face the devilishly good and red-hot Heat.
“We have another chance and I’m going for it,” Nowitzki said. “Everything after that will fall into place. Next couple of years we can talk about my legacy when my career is over. But I’m really just focusing on winning and being on the best team.”
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/onemanfastbreak.