BOSTON -- Dirk Nowitzki played 34 minutes on Wednesday, a number that used to be a regular occurrence back in the days when he routinely logged over 3,000 in a season. Things are different now. A short time after dropping another familiar set of figures on the Celtics -- 23 points on just 14 shots -- Nowitzki laid down on the training table with his legs up against the wall. They were wrapped in recovery boots from his hips to his toes that made him look like the world’s tallest goalie.
He didn’t used to have to do this kind of thing. Nowitzki would spend hours in the gym, honing his shot and perfecting his craft. That was work. Now, it takes almost as long just to get him to ready. This is harder. It happens to everybody in this game, even to one of the greatest shotmakers to ever play. Yet Nowitzki is not slowing down as much as transitioning gracefully into the final act of a brilliant NBA career that we’ve been privileged to observe for nearly half his life.
"I’ve seen it firsthand for a year and a half now and I understand why he’s one of the best players to ever play," Chandler Parsons told me. "His work ethic is by far the best I’ve ever seen. He’s getting to an age now where he has to put in even more effort and he does it every single day. That’s what he has to do. He has a whole bunch of movement stuff, a whole bunch of weight room stuff, flexibility stuff to keep him mobile. We’re smart with his minutes and what he does in practice. He takes care of himself like no one I’ve ever seen."
The remarkable thing about Nowitzki is that he still looks largely the same as when he came into the league. Never the fastest or most athletic player on the court, he ambles up the court as much as he runs and takes just a little bit longer to set up in his favorite spots. Get him into those areas on the floor, however, and he’s just as lethal as ever.
"We’re going to keep giving him shots, keep running plays, keep screening for him," Parsons said. "We’re going to do whatever we can to get the ball in his hands because age is just a number with him. He can still hoop."
Nowitzki’s shooting over 50 percent for the first time since the 2011 campaign and his True Shooting Percentage would be the highest of his career. Maintaining those numbers isn’t the point. That’s he doing it at all at age 37 after a season in which there were notable signs of decline is reason enough to celebrate his game all over again.
"You’ve got to respect him so much that he creates so much space," Devin Harris said. "We do a great job of creating open shots for him and honestly, I think he can play forever."
With Dirk all things have always seemed possible. There is no transitional rebuilding program in place for Dallas and no expectation of mentoring young prospects. The Mavericks are here to win for as long as Nowitzki can still play. When their offseason plans went awry, they quickly cobbled together a makeshift lineup full of veteran free agents with something to prove. There would be no retrenchment. Admirable as this strategy was, outside projections were not high mainly due to age, injury and a lack of familiarity.
Most of their starting lineup -- Nowitzki included -- was held out for significant parts of training camp. Parsons and Wes Matthews are coming back from significant surgeries and three of their starters are brand new. Two of their key reserves -- Ray Felton and Dwight Powell -- were rotational afterthoughts last season. The Mavericks themselves will be the first to tell you that they are still figuring things out on the fly.
"It was a tough preseason for us with a lot of injuries. The good thing is none of them are young," Nowitzki said. "They’ve been through a lot in this league. They want to play off each other, they want to play with each other, they want to share the ball. We’re a bunch of veterans that have no ego. Whoever scores, scores."
The first few games of the season were uneven and there was an unsightly loss in New Orleans to a Pelicans team without Anthony Davis. That was a turning point. The next night the Mavs beat the Clippers and Nowitzki scored 31 points. They’ve won six straight mainly with solid defense and unselfish play. It’s not as flashy as some of the great Maverick teams of the past, but it’s been very effective. It’s also a splendid way for Dirk to live out the final years of his basketball life.
"He’s more sure of himself," Harris said. "He’s more vocal than he has been. He’s just focused on taking it one game at a time and when it’s his time to walk away he’ll know it. Right now he’s just focused on winning games."
Even amid this renaissance, we have to come to terms with the fact that we are watching the twilight of a great career. For almost two decades we have watched Nowitzki transcend the limits of our imagination and sweep into the ranks of the undisputed immortals. He came into the league at exactly the right time, just as the the game was transitioning away from the dreary ISO-ball of the 90s and offenses became more fluid and open-minded.
From the beginning, he was a revelation. Dirk was not the first of the stretch fours, but he may have been the first 7-footer you could build an offense around on the perimeter. He was, and in many ways still is, an offensive system unto himself.
He’s been an MVP, a constant All-Star presence and a four-time All-NBA First Team performer to say nothing of his role as an international trailblazer. He’s also been a champion after which he left us with the indelible image of the man walking off the court, head buried in his jersey to hide his emotions. There is nothing left for Nowitzki to prove, which makes all of this even more enjoyable. He’s not fighting his legacy and he’s no mere veteran presence on a team full of kids. Rather, he’s reinforcing his standing in a league that is now full of facsimiles.
People have been looking for the Next Dirk for so long that it’s become a cliché. Every tall European prospect is compared to Dirk in one way or another in the same manner that every versatile athletic big man is compared to Kevin Garnett. Just as there will never be another KG, there will also never be another Dirk. There are, however, a legion of imitators, such as Boston’s Kelly Olynyk who on Wednesday attempted a version of Nowitzki’s signature move, the one-legged fallaway, at the end of the first quarter, right in front of its inventor.
"That was cold-blooded," Nowitzki said afterward. "I told their coach, you’re going to run a 1-4 ISO up top against me? So that hurt me a little bit."
As they left the floor, Dirk told Olynyk, "Don’t give me my own move."
Laughter all around and a good time was had by all. The telling moments came later. Nowitzki was not here for a good-natured tribute. As they made their way out on the court for the start of the second quarter, Dirk went to work. He hit a turnaround jumper, and then pump faked Olynyk into picking up his third foul. The Mavs chipped away at a sizeable deficit as Nowitzki made one shot after another. It was just one more masterful performances in a career that’s been full of them.
"I guess it shows I’ve been around for a long, long time," Nowitzki said. "I’ve done something right. It’s very humbling for guys to like my game or enjoy some of my stuff I did over the last 17,18 years. It’s humbling. It’s fun to still compete against these young guys who want to come at me every night."
Humbling yes, but don’t overlook that last part. Dirk has always been a ruthless competitor. This is what still drives him and makes him endure all those long hours of conditioning and maintenance. There are only so many chances in this game to prove yet again that you’re the baddest man on the court and Nowitzki is still taking them on every night.
"It’s the love of competition," he said. "I feel like my body can still do it. I can still be out there and be effective and help the team win. I’ve got to admit, the summers are getting harder. The getting in shape part, that sometimes gets a little old. But the games, when I’m out there with the guys, it’s always been fun to try and win and show these young guys I still got it. That will always be fun."
Nowitzki signed a 3-year deal in 2014 and he’s said repeatedly that he’s determined to see it through. After that, who knows? There are many nights when it feels like he can go on forever and times when we wonder when it’s all going to end. He doesn’t seem like the type to hang around after it’s over, nor does he seem like the kind of player who wants to play past his expiration date. All of that is easy to say now, of course, but that’s the plan as he sees it.
"I try to enjoy the last couple of years," Nowitzki said. "I obviously know it’s coming to an end, but just give all I have to the game while I still can and then everything else will fall in line after that. I was fortunate enough to make enough money. I don’t have to take a job after I’m done. I can just enjoy life and spend time with my kids. I want to give my all these last couple of years to the franchise and to the game, and then I’ll go away."
Cherish these moments because nothing lasts forever. Not even Dirk.