Don't ever count out Dirk Nowitzki. If the 2011 NBA Playoffs have taught us anything, it should be that you don't kill Dirk Nowitzki, you just keep your fingers crossed and hope he doesn't kill you.
For the first three-and-a-half quarters in Monday night's Game 4, Oklahoma City had gotten lucky on that front. Dirk played well, but not well enough to make the Thunder worried. And with five minutes left, after Russell Westbrook missed a three, Nick Collison grabbed a rebound and kicked to a wide-open Kevin Durant at the top of the key, he buried a three, and it put OKC up 15. At that point, Dallas took a timeout, and it just seemed like the Thunder's night.
At that point, I made the mistake of falling asleep. Then Dirk happened.
Piecing things together the morning after re-watching the final minutes at 7 a.m. and reading post-game quotes... There's just not much you can say. Dirk Nowitzki's been warning us for the past month now. We should have seen this coming. Dirk's 2011 Playoffs have been a work of art all along, and the picture wouldn't be complete without a deadly comeback like this.
This is all part of something bigger with Dirk this year. It reminds of that scene in Man On Fire, where Christopher Walken says, "A man can be an artist in anything. Food, whatever. Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." Dirk's art is fallaway jumpers, twisting drives to the hoop, foul shots, and everything in between, and these playoffs have been a work of art. Kevin Durant's just in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
"We kept believing," Dirk said afterward. "In the last couple minutes we got great stops, finally got some rebounds, and it really helped our flow. They couldn't really guard us off the transition and we needed to get some stops and that was big down the stretch." But that doesn't quite do it justice.
Dirk had been playing well all night long—he had 22 points at halftime—but it hadn't been enough. Then, Dallas went on a 17-2 run over the final five minutes, with Dirk leading it all. Threes, fadeaways in the lane, baseline jumpers, free throws. He did everything, and OKC couldn't do anything.
As for the Thunder's role in all this, it's less a choke job than a reminder of where they are as a team. They've got all the talent to own the NBA for the next decade, but that talent's still young, and without anyone to take control in the final minutes, stuff like this can happen. Once James Harden fouled out in Game 4 Monday night, they had no identity on offense.
Harden's been the catalyst for them all playoffs long, and with him gone, lay-ups became long jumpers, pick-and-rolls became players standing on the perimeter, and OKC reverted to the team that gave away Game 3 of the Memphis series. Once he sat down, there was... A missed 17-foot jumper (Westbrook), a turnover (Westbrook), a missed 22-foot jumper (Durant) a missed three (Durant), two missed free throws (Westbrook), a turnover (Durant), two more missed jumpers (Westbrook), and then a missed three from Thabo Sefolosha before Dirk finally tied the game at the end.
It was an epic collapse, yeah. But understandable. When a team doesn't have a point guard or a plan to get easy buckets, this is what happens, sometimes. Call it an indictment of Russell Westbrook and Scotty Brooks, or a testament to Harden, but it's not some freak accident.
Oklahoma City's been at risk for something like this all month long. The same thing happened against the Grizzlies. When things get tight in the final minutes, OKC's offense struggles. And against Dirk, they're facing the perfect opponent to make them pay. What Nowitzki did on Monday was less a case of miracles or luck, but a perfect example of when talent meets opportunity.
OKC left the door open because they don't know how to close yet. And Dirk's proven over and over again this month, if you leave the door open even a crack, he and thecan capitalize.
For Kevin Durant, it's a lesson. Everything Durant hopes to be in the NBA, Dirk is. Durant's ten years younger and he's not far off, which bodes well for Oklahoma City's future. But where Dirk can murder people down low and up top and with pump fakes, Durant's still learning how to wield his powers. He demanded the ball more in Game 4, but especially down the stretch, you could tell he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. He'll get there, though. Maybe not this year, but sometime soon.
As Durant said postgame, "It's not over yet." Even if he's wrong about this series, he's right.
Indeed, Game 4 may be what turns the Western Conference Finals from an instant classic to a mismatch, but it's not over for Durant and the Thunder. Nobody's proven that more than Dirk in 2011.
We'd written his legacy before these playoffs began. "The once-in-a-lifetime German scorer that never had enough help and couldn't quite do it by himself," we said as recently as last month. But now he's changed everything. He's taken his game to a level we never imagined. Not just once-in-a-lifetime scoring, but once-in-a-lifetime once-a-night, and always at the biggest moments possible. The stuff the NBA makes commercials about.
So really, Monday's game was the perfect metaphor for Dirk's career, and it's part of a bigger picture that's finally coming into focus. Even as he played great for the first three-and-a-half quarters, it looked like it wouldn't be enough to change the final score. So we wrote him off and changed the channel, and some of us fell asleep.
But if this morning's proven anything, it's that you can never, ever sleep on superstars like Dirk Nowitzki. When you wake up, NBA history can look different. The ending that seemed inevitable seems unimaginable the morning-after. This was always Dirk's destiny. Now? Who knows what happens next, but however this ends, Dirk's already exceeded our wildest dreams.