Dirk Nowitzki checks out during the first half of a game against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night. He’s not off to a good start from the field, and his team trails 29-27 in the second quarter. He slowly walks to the bench and, still standing, throws on a long-sleeve shirt over his jersey. He bends his knee a few times as if he’s hurt, but he’s only hurting; he knows there might be pain, but there’s no injury. That’s just his 39-year-old body asking him why the heck he’s still playing basketball. Sometimes, it betrays him. Would tonight be one of those nights?
Nowitzki would sit out for the next seven minutes. By the time he’d touch the ball next, Dallas would be behind 48-41 with under a minute left to go in the first half, an uninspiring start to a game against a team the Mavericks should beat. But something suddenly changes. J.J. Barea brings the ball up the floor and runs a pick-and-roll with Nowitzki — is it 2018 or 2008? — and the German draws a switch. Barea recognizes the situation and dumps it to the man who helped make his career. Nowitzki catches, spins, and fires a shot he’s made 1,000 times. It falls.
The bucket seems to breathe life into both Dirk and his team, who would come out of the halftime break and score a season-high 39 points in the third quarter. Nowitzki would score eight of them himself, putting on a vintage display of post-ups and fadeaways, appearing to dial back the clock a decade or more. He would finish the night with a season-high-tying 20 points in 24 minutes.
Like it or not, Father Time comes for us all. Nowitzki has rejected his advances for quite a while now, but even the sixth all-time scorer in NBA history has felt vulnerable at times in his 20th season. The German has said many times that some nights he just doesn’t have it; his body simply won’t cooperate. That’s through no fault of his own — Nowitzki puts more time into maintenance than actual basketball these days — but rather the result of thousands and thousands of games, jumps, falls, and collisions.
It seemed like Tuesday night’s game against the Magic would be another one of those nights, but something clicked and suddenly the time machine took us back to 2008. From a distance it might seem like Nowitzki is having a down season, averaging just 12.3 points per game. But these last few weeks, just like during that seven-minute reprieve in the second quarter Tuesday night, something has clicked. Nowitzki has surged.
“It took me a while, unfortunately, to get going,” Nowitzki said, “but I feel a lot better the last month or so, even longer than that.”
In his last 14 games, Nowitzki is averaging 14.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 51.0/42.9/88.0 percent shooting splits. He’s sporting a career-high-tying 42.1 3-point percentage and a career-best 55.0 effective field goal percentage. He’s shooting above 90 percent from the free throw line for the first time since the 2009-10 season. And, most impressively, he’s played every single one of the Mavs’ 42 games. He wants to play all 82, something that’s only been done at age 39+ by Michael Jordan and John Stockton.
Instead of starting south and only getting worse, Nowitzki’s Tuesday night became a microcosm of his season. It took him a while to get going, then he suddenly hit his stride and never looked back.
“I’m just feeling so much better, honestly, than I did earlier in the season,” Nowitzki said. “The first couple weeks were tough, to kind of get my legs under me and really get going in the season. I guess you can practice all you want, and shoot all you want, and run on the treadmill all you want. But there’s nothing like guys pushing on you when you go up and down, and showing and helping on pick-and-rolls. There’s no way you can simulate that.”
The Mavs’ earlier and abbreviated training camp didn’t do Nowitzki any favors coming out of the gates this season, and he admitted he felt a little creaky early on. But now, on more nights than most, he’s able to do everything he wants to.
He’s flourished playing alongside Dennis Smith Jr. in the starting lineup and with the three-guard bench unit featuring J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, and Devin Harris. He’s no longer the focal point on a nightly basis, instead playing more of a supporting role as a pick-and-pop or spot-up shooter while Smith and Harrison Barnes do most of the heavy lifting.
Tuesday night, however, was different. The Magic kept switching screens, leaving point guard Elfrid Payton on an island against the 7-foot Maverick. Once Dirk saw one shot go in, he wanted more, and the Mavs were happily willing to oblige him. His work in the post was the driving force behind the team’s 39-point third quarter and 71-point second half.
The execution on the play above was nice. Nowitzki made the catch, waited to see if help would come, then took a dribble to gather himself before taking the shot. But it was what happened before all of that which let you know he was feeling good.
Upon setting the ball-screen and drawing a switch, Nowitzki trotted to the block. Smith immediately attacked the mismatched Bismack Biyombo but didn’t have an appealing driving lane, so he quickly withdrew from the paint and waited for the German to get to his spot. On nights when Nowitzki might not be feeling it, there’s a good chance he’d spot up on the 3-point line and let Smith go one-on-one with the center. But Tuesday night was not one of those nights. Body language tells stories of its own, and so too does how Nowitzki plays in the pick-and-roll. He’s even begun rolling every now and then lately, too, not popping.
At first glance it looks like since there’s no one else in the lane during the sequence above, obviously it’s an easy play to make. But it’s a chicken/egg argument. Did Dirk roll because no help was there, or did every Bulls defender disregard the paint because they thought there’s no way Nowitzki would roll? You can see Nikola Mirotic show on the screen and then turn his head anticipating Nowitzki to either spot up or re-screen. But by the time he turns his head, Dirk is already catching it five feet from the rim. Again: Is this a defensive breakdown or is this an opponent not even considering the possibility of Nowitzki rolling? Either way, it’s two points. Nowitzki has done this more lately and it’s a matter of time before teams start having to worry about it.
The Mavericks continue to space the floor so well that it makes cheating off your man as a defender to offer a double-team a risky proposition. After he sank a couple jumpers and drew a couple fouls, the Magic decided to send a second defender, but Nowitzki made them pay with the pass.
Later, he posted up all-time Mavs assassin D.J. Augustin at the nail — his favorite spot — where it’s impossible to send a double-team without leaving someone one pass away wide-open. These are areas Nowitzki rarely ventures into unless he’s feeling good.
After shooting just 43.9 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc in his first 18 games of the season, Nowitzki’s 14-game renaissance has vaulted him back up the efficiency leaderboard. Among the 167 players who average at least 10 possessions per game, Nowitzki ranks 17th in points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, ahead of names including Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James. Does that mean he’s better than them right now? No. But it doesn’t matter if you’re literally only shooting wide-open layups: If you score more efficiently than names like that at age 39, it means you’re having a pretty incredible season.
Nowitzki is scoring great right now. But he’s still 39 years old. There might be another stretch where his body betrays him, and he’s said himself there will still be nights when he just doesn’t have it. Second nights of back-to-backs immediately come to mind; he’s shooting just 43.1 percent from the field and 34.8 percent on 3s in seven such games this season, with another coming Wednesday against the Hornets. (On the flip side, he’s shooting 59.6 percent and 50.0 on 3s in six games coming off two days’ rest, which is phenomenal.)
All of that said, his recent run is still worth marveling at. Enjoy the stretches of excellence like this one while you still can, because you never know when the next one — or the next player like Nowitzki — will come around.