By JONATHAN FEIGEN
Before Dirk Nowitzki demolished the Thunder, before he drove by Chris Bosh to win one Finals game and rose above illness and Udonis Haslem to win another, there was still reason to marvel.
At an age when athletes usually are in decline, Nowitzki has continued to grow and improve in remarkable ways. He has become stronger in the low post, tougher off the dribble, unstoppable with a high-kick fadeaway jumper.
He has spoken of the late-night workouts and how they have expanded his array of offensive options. Teammates speak of his growth as a leader. Even Haslem rolled his eyes and grumbled for the “99,000th time” about how much more difficult Nowitzki has become to defend since their meeting in the 2006 Finals.
But Nowitzki — who turns 33 this month — has enjoyed a change even rarer than the late-career improvement of his game.
He has altered his image, erased old and inaccurate labels. Five seasons after he was a runaway Most Valuable Player, he has become appreciated as he never was.
“It’s like where have you been,” Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said of the new perception. “We’re spoiled in Dallas to have a guy like that, to see him develop and get to the point he is today. It’s really, really cool to be a part of. This is Dirk. We’ve been spoiled rotten.”
To the Mavericks, Nowitzki is not answering critics as much as cashing in on dues paid.
“That guy has been through the stinking ringer,” Nelson said. “It’s been tough. This is the same Dirk we’ve seen for 11 years. He’s hungry. He senses an opportunity. He’s absolutely put this team on his back. But he’s done it before.”
The failure to fully appreciate Nowitzki was not difficult to understand. The Mavericks lost four consecutive games in the 2006 Finals against the Heat and were eliminated in the first round in two of the next four seasons.
Though he is one of the league’s great shooters, a 7-footer that more often operated on the perimeter than inside, he was even labeled “soft” as if he scored outside the paint as a matter of preference, rather than excellence.
Nowitzki has become increasingly tough inside, negating the option of defending him with quicker perimeter players. In this season’s playoffs, he has become especially effective putting the ball on the floor and driving to the rim.
This season, Nowitzki has averaged 28 points per game in the playoffs, making 49.6 percent of his shots, 50 percent of his 3-pointers and 93.7 percent of his free throws.
“He’s more physical,” Haslem said. “He plays through contact. He’s putting it on the floor going either way. Obviously, he already had a lethal jumper. He’s just a great player. He can do it all.”
Most of all, with the game on the line, no one has been more effective. Averaging 11 points per game in the fourth quarter of the Finals, he has scored more fourth quarter points than Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined.
He scored the Mavericks’ last nine points in their Game 2 win, including the game-winning drive. He also tallied their final 12 points in Game 3, missing a jumper that would have forced overtime, and notched 10 fourth-quarter points while struggling with a high fever in Game 4.
“That was our version of Willis Reed,” Nelson said. “If he doesn’t tough it out and he doesn’t come back, there is no way. I don’t even know how he was standing that fourth quarter.”
When he stood tallest, he had not only beaten the Heat and fever, but added another retort to the old doubts and labels, as if they too were something to overcome.
“He gets beat down so much,” Dallas guard Jason Terry said. “It’s a big burden, a responsibility. But he welcomes the challenge.
“He’s going to be a Hall of Famer. Dirk is his own unique individual, and he’s carving out a niche for himself in history.”