The NBA’s Twitter account was at it again today, as it tweeted a highlight video of Dirk Nowitzki’s first 40-point game in the NBA. Just before the season started, the account shared video of his first 20-point performance.
But 40 points, though. That’s something special.
— NBA (@NBA) December 17, 2015
The date was May 14, 2001. It was Game 5 of the second-round series between the Mavs and the Spurs, the first of six such battles these two teams would have in the Nowitzki/Tim Duncan era. San Antonio had assumed a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, and Dallas’ back was against the wall. Unfortunately, the Spurs would prevail in the game, 105-87, but not before Nowiztki would unleash the first of his seven career 40-point playoff performances, and the first of 26 such games overall, including both regular and postseason games.
His line on the night: 42 points on 14 of 24 from the field and 0 of 1 from deep, 14 of 18 from the free throw line, 18 rebounds, 2 assists, 6 steals, and a block. Interestingly, he’s only had three 40-point games in his career without having hit a single three-pointer, and all three came in the playoffs.
Just watching the way Nowitzki moved back then is impressive. At the time, he was only 22 years old, playing power forward and even some small forward in Don Nelson’s run-and-gun offense that was still a year or two away from reaching its full potential. This was Nowitzki’s first of many playoff appearances, after a season which saw the basketball world stunned as the young Mavs upset the veteran Utah Jazz, led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, in five games in the first round following a last-second bucket by center Calvin Booth.
Dallas hadn’t yet become the basketball darling it would grow into in the following seasons, but Nowitzki’s performance in the Spurs series — he averaged 23.0 points and 8.6 boards to lead the Mavs, even braving off a vicious elbow that knocked out his front tooth toward the end of Game 4 — put him on the national radar. The next season, Nowitzki would average 23.4 points and 9.9 rebounds en route to making his first All-Star team, an All-NBA Second Team appearance, and earning his first of 16 Player of the Week awards.
To that point in time, the NBA had never seen a big man with the skill and athleticism Nowitzki had. He was a 7-footer who could run point, hit three-pointers, and take big guys off the dribble. He’d barely even discovered his post-up game, which would take his game to even greater heights as he reached his physical prime. There are plenty of talented players in the history of the game, but there aren’t many who were immediately as unique and revolutionary as Nowitzki was, even at the young age of 22.