- CLUTCH Summary: It’s easy to say now how great Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki was at basketball, but much of his legend grew from the 2011 NBA Finals.
- After the Michael Jordan era of hoops, the importance of rings raised, leaving plenty of players’ legacies in doubt.
- Dirk managed to snag the moment, not only making NBA history, but cementing himself as an all-time great in the 2011 NBA Finals.
The NBA will officially lose one of its all-time great players on Wednesday night when Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki suits up for his career finale against the San Antonio Spurs.
Nowitzki said goodbye to Mavs fans on Tuesday night, dropping 30 points in a performance that the Dallas faithful—and Dirk—will remember for the rest of their lives.
The 40-year-old will step away from the game as one of the best power forwards to ever lace up his sneakers and one of the best scorers in NBA history, period.
But Nowitzki’s road to achieving basketball immortality was not all that easy.
He began his NBA career with a Mavs team that had been one of the league’s laughingstocks for quite some time.
Prior to Nowitzki’s rookie season in the 1998-99 campaign, Dallas had missed the playoffs eight years in a row and also failed to qualify in each of the German’s first two years in the league.
The Mavs finally ended their drought in Nowitzki’s third season, winning 53 games and actually making it to the second round of the playoffs. That began a streak of 12 straight postseason appearances for the Mavs, most of which were wrought with disappointment.
Dallas finally reached the Western Conference Finals in 2003, only to fall to a determined Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs team in six games. To be fair, Nowitzki injured his ankle during that series, but it seemed hard to imagine the Mavs beating that Spurs squad regardless. Plus, they took advantage of a Chris Webber-less Sacramento Kings club just to get to the conference finals to begin with.
The following year, the Mavs were knocked out of the first round, and in 2005, Dallas fell to the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns (seriously … why couldn’t Nash hit his prime in Dallas?) in the second round.
At that point, it seemed like the Mavs would never get over the hump. But then, the following season, Nowitzki actually led them to an NBA Finals appearance after slaying the San Antonio dragon in the Western Conference Finals (after nearly blowing a 3-1 series lead).
Dallas then proceeded to take a 2-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the Finals, only to see Dwyane Wade lead the Heat to four straight wins in a historic Finals performance that had Mavs owner Mark Cuban beside himself.
Nowitzki came up small when it mattered most, which was a running theme for the 7-footer in the early stages of his NBA career.
Things then hit rock bottom in Dallas in 2007, when the Mavs won a league-best 67 games only to lose to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round in a series that was not even particularly close. Dirk won the MVP award that season, but it felt hollow.
It didn’t look like the Mavs would ever recover from that blow, as they proceeded to get knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in two of the next three years as patience in Dallas was starting to run thin.
Would Nowitzki ever truly realize his potential? Would he ever bring a title to Dallas? Was he overrated? All of those questions permeated the air around the sharpshooter during that time.
But then, during the 2010-11 campaign, something special happened.
The Mavs won 57 games during the regular season and finished third in the Western Conference, but because of their history of flaming out in the playoffs, no one really thought too much of it.
Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers were looked at as the favorite to win the West for a fourth straight year, and the Spurs once again looked formidable. The Oklahoma City Thunder were also starting to bud.
But this time, Dirk wasn’t playing around.
Nowitzki led the Mavs through the Western Conference gauntlet, even sweeping the two-time defending champion Lakers in the second round and dispatching a young Thunder team in the conference finals.
It then looked like the Mavs were about to run into a buzzsaw, as they were set to face a Heat team that was no longer just led by Wade, the same Wade who ripped their hearts out of their chests five years prior. This time, Miami boasted a lineup that featured Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, an all-time great trio in terms of talent that clearly held the edge over the Mavs on paper.
Early on in the series, things were playing out like most expected, as Miami cruised to a Game 1 win and held a 15-point lead during the fourth quarter of Game 2 before the tide turned and opinions of Nowitzki began to change forever.
Nowitzki led the Mavs back for a thrilling 95-93 win, with ABC commentator Mike Breen’s “puts it in!” and “banks it in!” calls still resonating eight years later.
Dallas had a bit of a setback in Game 3, falling by two points, but Dirk then led the Mavs to three straight wins for a 4-2 Finals victory.
That was it. Nowitzki had finally earned his first ring and did so in incredible fashion, averaging 26 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while making 45 of his 46 free throws during the series. He burned Udonis Haslem. He abused Bosh. He made LeBron a mere footnote in fourth quarters.
3-pointers. Turnarounds. Fearless drives. Pinpoint free-throw accuracy.
Nowitzki did it all, and not even a 102-degree fever in Game 4 could stop him.
It was, easily, one of the most legendary and memorable performances in the history of the NBA Finals. Dirk Nowitzki, the guy who just could not find a way to get it done in the biggest moments, had taken down a Wade-James-Bosh trio that was picked by most to steamroll through the NBA that season, and the Heat were certainly picked to beat Dallas.
From that point on, Nowitzki had his place in the annals of NBA history. Sure, he still would have been a future Hall of Famer even without that remarkable championship run. And sure, he still would have been the best player in Mavs history, but just imagine how different the overall public opinion of Dirk would be without that run.
Keep in mind how the general population felt about the Heat at the time, too. They were despised. They were viewed as the ultimate villains. LeBron’s “not four, not five, not six …” proclamation rubbed everyone outside of South Beach the wrong way.
And Dirk, who was incredibly likeable even before that Finals run, stopped them in their tracks and changed the way we viewed him forever.
As Dirk Nowitzki walks off the court for the final time on Wednesday night, you may find yourself hearing “puts it in!” and “banks it in!”
You won’t be the only one.