Dirk Nowitzki’s three-pointer that essentially clinched the Mavericks’ 128-119 against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night was a long time coming — and not just because Nowitzki had experienced some recent shooting struggles heading into the game.

Nowitzki finished with 32 points on 11-of-23 shooting against the Thunder, effectively ending a weeklong shooting rut that included an 11-of-27 outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves last Wednesday and a 2-of-12 showing against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. The Mavericks lost both games in overtime as the German shot just 4-of-17 from the field combined in the contests’ fourth quarters and OTs.

The superstar not only busted out of an ugly slump against Oklahoma City, but he did it in the most important moments: his seven points in overtime led all players, and he was a cool 5-of-10 from the field in the fourth quarter and extra time.

One of those field goals was the aforementioned three-pointer with 57.9 seconds left to ice the game. Nowitzki, standing at the left wing, received a pass from a driving Monta Ellis, the Mavericks’ best and most reliable late-game player in recent weeks.

The sequence was set up with a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor between Ellis and Brandan Wright. Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook, responsible for guarding Wright and Ellis respectively, both stuck with Ellis, leaving Wright open at the free throw line. To counter the center’s open position, Kevin Durant opted to leave Dirk alone on the weak side and help on Wright, the more immediate threat. It’s something OKC frequently does on defense. Once Ibaka switched onto Ellis, Monta’s hand was forced.

“With the switching, you’ve got to move it and you’ve either got to find the right matchup or you’ve got to attack the guy that switched,” Rick Carlisle said after the win. “We’ve seen a lot of it this year and we’ve gotten better with it.”

Ellis chose to attack Ibaka, but — learning from an earlier mistake — he did so patiently. With 6:26 left in the fourth quarter, Ellis turned the ball over in a very similar situation.

The dynamic guard faced a similar Thunder coverage on the left side of the floor, but instead of skipping the ball over to the open Calderon, Ellis forced a tough pass in to Wright, and Oklahoma City came away with a steal. The key to Oklahoma City’s tricky defensive scheme: notice how all five Thunder players are on the strong side. Every player is within 15 feet of Ellis, which greatly limits the guard’s options. There’s no driving lane, and there isn’t a passing lane, either — except, of course, for that cross-court toss.

“They’re a hard team,” Carlisle said of the Thunder. “They’re a good defensive team. They’re athletic and long, and if you let them load up on the strong side they’re gonna make it hard on you.”

So more than 10 in-game minutes later, when presented with a similar coverage, Ellis made the right decision. He found his running mate Nowitzki, who was especially vocal on the court after the swish, all alone for three points.

“I was just happy that it finally went in,” Nowitzki said. “I think that’s what I was screaming. I said ‘finally!’

“I felt like I had some good looks, even there in the first half,” he added. “And then in the third quarter I was open a couple times. I think at the end of the third, Vince (Carter) made a heck of a play to hit me right there wide-open on the wing, missed that one. I was just happy about that one going in.”

Ellis has been able to make plays late in games both for himself and for his teammates, and the huge Nowitzki three was no exception. The Dallas duo has already combined for many memorable moments, but Tuesday’s clincher might have been the most important. Not only did the shot hopefully signal Dirk’s return to top closing form, but it also illustrated just how far Ellis has come as a facilitator. He learned from an earlier mistake and made the correct, smart play in the game’s biggest moment.

As the season comes to a close, it’s safe to bet the Mavericks will find themselves battling games out down to the very final seconds. But, unlike in recent years, Dallas has two very capable finishers. And when they work well together, as they did against Oklahoma City, the Mavericks will more often than not find a way to win.

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