When it comes to rivals, Dirk Nowitzki has a few, but probably none quite so heated and hated as the San Antonio Spurs.

Heated, hated and loved, all at once, if that’s possible.

Yes, it’s the Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade that Nowitzki and the Mavericks have hooked up with twice in the NBA finals, with each winning a championship.

But the Spurs? That’s down the road on Interstate 35. That’s David Robinson. That’s Tim Duncan. That’s Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

And, of course, Gregg Popovich.

The legendary coach took time before the Spurs played the Mavericks Tuesday night on TNT to pay homage to Nowitzki. Whether or not Nowitzki retires after this season isn’t the point. The fact is that Popovich has seen greatness both on his side of the rivalry and the Mavericks’ side in the form of Nowitzki for the past 21 seasons.

“Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of years,” Popovich said. “All I can say is that Dirk is a spectacular example of a competitor on the court and a great human being all at the same time. He competed with a ferocity and he loved winning, hated losing, but was classy in that he knew how to handle both. And that’s why he garnered the respect of teammates, opponents, fans, for all those 21 years.

“There aren’t many examples of somebody who played that great for that long and was also a wonderful human being who did all the right things for that entire length of time. So he’s a special, special person, in my book.”

Nowitzki has an assortment of memories against the Spurs, some awesome, some not so much. Who can forget the finger roll and Ginobili foul to force overtime in Game 7 in 2006? Or the knee injury in 2003 when management was conflicted on whether to play Nowitzki or not? Or the 31 points in the Game 5 clincher in 2009’s first round. Or the 2010 series when they were the No. 2 seed after a 55-win regular season but were upset in the first round by the seventh-seeded Spurs?

“Playing these guys twice in the last month of the season is interesting, too,” said Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle. “I know it’s real meaningful for Dirk because the competition has always been great and the stakes always high, it’s in-state, divisional rival … we’re in the throes of a rebuild now, but for so many years, both teams were up there in the Western Conference and a lot of battles back and forth.

“I remember the ’06 seventh game. That was an amazing ending to that series. We had a good series against them in ’09, lost to them on ’10. I’m pretty sure in his mind these are special. I don’t know if this is it for him or not. But if this ends up being his last year, I’m sure he savors every moment playing against teams that were big rivals.”

Nowitzki has a profound respect for Popovich and the Spurs’ organization. Hates to lose to them, as the Mavericks did on Tuesday night 112-105. But admires the way they do business and compete.

“His (Popovich’s) teams are always super-smart and play super-hard,” Nowitzki said after the loss. “They compete whether they’re down 20 or up 20, they always keep coming. They keep throwing guys out there that play smart, play the right way. That’s been the Pop way for over two decades.”

That’s what makes for good competition.

And of course, the years of battling Duncan will be remembered fondly by generations of NBA fans. Like Nowitzki, Duncan also retired without fanfare. He didn’t announce anything. He just finished one season and decided that was it. Nowitzki is handling his retirement – whenever it comes – the same way.

“That’s who they are,” Popovich said. “We’ve often talked about it in our organization. Those are two guys who have gotten over themselves a long time ago. They do their jobs and they go home.”

Meanwhile, the Spurs’ coach, like everybody else in the NBA, has been impressed with the rookie season that Luka Doncic has produced.

While Doncic did not have a sterling Tuesday night, he remains solidly in the crosshairs of stardom, Popovich said.

“He’s surprised a lot of people, No. 1,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people knew who he was. All the scouts and teams knew. Obviously, Dallas knew. But he’s been a great surprise for fans and for basketball. And I think he’s in that category of player where it’s not that he’s a great scorer or great defender or great rebounder or whatever. He’s a beautiful basketball player. He does everything. He is a consummate basketball player, skill-wise, understanding, just an intrinsic understanding of the court and spatial arrangements and that sort of thing. He’s very unique in that regard.”

Twitter: @ESefko

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