Buck Harvey: Of Dirk’s two paths, one is to be David

DALLAS — He’s a one-time MVP, and he’s been called a longtime softie.

He’s a 7-footer with unusual gifts, and he’s been the superstar of a Texas franchise with a history of unusual losses.

Now he has a 3-0 second-round lead on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and what comes next will change Dirk Nowitzki.

Lose as no one has in NBA history, and his image will be indelible.

Win, and he’s David Robinson in 1999.

Nowitzki won’t exactly be Robinson, of course. Nowitzki remains the Mavericks’ scoring leader, and he was Friday with 32 points. What was more impressive that night — his four 3-pointers, or his late, left-handed runner for the lead?

“Just about everything that happened down the stretch,” Rick Carlisle said afterward, “was a direct result of him either scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot.”

Robinson wasn’t that after Tim Duncan showed up. When the Spurs swept the Lakers in 1999, also in the second round, a Sports Illustrated headline announced, “Substance over Style.” Duncan’s outstretched arms were on the cover.

Still, Robinson was integral for a dominating group that went 15-2 on the way to a title. In another sweep, in the next round against Portland, Robinson was the best Spur.

Along the way, he shed the baggage that Nowitzki carries now, including his own disappointment at the hands of Don Nelson and a small Golden State team. The change began a dozen years ago, when the Lakers looked the way they do now.

Then, the season before Phil Jackson arrived, a young Kobe couldn’t correct the confusion any more than an old one has in the first three games. But there are differences, since the current Lakers are the two-time defending champions with a few things to lean on.

Two of them: They blew leads in Game 1 and Game 3.

Bryant isn’t “sick in the head,” as he put it, for thinking a comeback is possible. Nowitzki seems to understand all of this, too. Nowitzki takes nothing for granted.

Part of that is the humble Nowitzki profile. Anyone who has known him has liked him, and he’s handled failure without blaming others or lashing out at his critics. Maybe nothing makes him seem more like Robinson than this.

But Nowitzki is also wary for a reason. From the 2006 Finals collapse to the following season, when he was presented the MVP trophy shortly after losing in the first round with a 67-win team, he’s become the figurehead of a franchise that continues to win 50 games every season and nothing else.

Last year was the same. Just as his playoff numbers have always increased over his regular-season ones, they did against the Spurs when he averaged 27 points. But when the Mavericks lost as the favorites, the details of failure didn’t matter. As it was with Robinson, it’s his franchise, and he’s the star, and he owns what happens.

He will own success, too. If sweeping the Lakers is just a start, since the Mavericks would still face both the conference and NBA Finals, Robinson began the same way.

And if Nowitzki eventually draws the Heat, as he did in 2006? The nation will be rooting for him, even with Mark Cuban and Jason Terry on his side, against LeBron James.

That’s getting ahead of everything, including today. Nowitzki understood that just minutes after Friday’s win. Then, with Dallas fans celebrating, Nowitzki saw the danger in a 3-0 advantage that no NBA team has ever lost.

“I’ve seen a lot in this league already,” Nowitzki said, “and I don’t want to be the first one.”

Yes. The other path would be better.


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