OKLAHOMA CITY -- With one minute and 24 seconds left on the clock, Dirk Nowitzki's shoulders slumped. His eyes fell downwards. His competitive spirit, as fierce as anyone's, crushed by another season lost.
Dallas hadn't led in Monday's Game 5, but they hung around, refusing to die every time it seemed like they should. Finally, a teammate's missed shot with less than 90 seconds left forced Nowitzki to accept the resolution of another season. The lights that had slowly been dimming had reached their pitch black finale. He turned back on defense, walking a few steps before willing his tired legs into a jog -- one final, lonely journey back down the court for the isolated superstar.
It has been five years since Nowitzki's greatest basketball accomplishment: the 2011 NBA Championship that defeated all of his career's demons in a single title run. In the five years since, the Mavericks have made the playoffs four times, failing to advance past the first round even once. Five years after sitting atop the basketball world, Nowitzki only has five more playoff wins to show for it.
"It's been an unfortunate run," is all Nowitzki would say after Monday's loss, diplomatically refusing to criticize the team's front office. "The lockout kind of messed us up after the championship, we made some business decisions. Let all our guys that helped us win basically go and haven't really recovered from that."
Nowitzki will be 38 next season. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said the team won't "take for granted" his return next season, merely out of respect for all that he has sacrificed for the franchise. But Nowitzki insists he'll return for at least one more year.
"I always said I wanted to retire a Mav," Nowitzki said, who plans to pick up the option remaining on his contract. "There's no reason to go anywhere unless the Mavs are rebuilding."
Nowitzki has watched his peers -- the few of them who still remain in the league -- embrace both ends of the spectrum. Tim Duncan only needs to play half the game on a team that's now the championship favorite, while Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett toiled away on lottery teams.
But Nowitzki's path is different. It's lonelier.
Duncan's small, crucial role on a team that might now be the NBA's title favorites is the goal, even more so when you consider Duncan is still surrounded by the teammates and coaches that have been in San Antonio for years. But Bryant and Garnett have been surrounded with purpose, too: the first with the glitz and glamour of a retirement tour that dominated every news cycle, and the later with the impending doom that the Timberwolves are projecting upon the league as their young stars grow into a fearsome, collective threat.
Stuck in the middle is Nowitzki, his uber-competitiveness fueling every Mavericks' playoff run. The only thing surrounding him is unfulfilled promises that this will be the year the Mavericks provide him with a roster that can contend. Like clockwork, Nowitzki has started the last five seasons still learning his teammates' names and ended it with an improbable first-round playoff berth, all while somehow leaving an enduring mark on everyone along the way.
"The biggest highlight for me -- the biggest highlight, and I mean that -- was to share moments on and off the court with this guy," Zaza Pachulia said in a quiet locker room after Game 5. "Life goes on, basketball is temporary. We were born as a man and we're going to die as a man. The friendship, the relationship, that's going to continue. So I've just been very fortunate to experience him."
For a first-year player like Justin Anderson, there was no better role model: "Man, just to see how he battles, just to see his fight. You see that and you wanna go out there and bark a little, too, play as hard as you can, dive on the floor for loose balls, give everything you've got in the gas tank. He doesn't save it for nothing."
The Mavericks will dance that same dance again this summer, but there's a chance the process finally snaps. If Game 5 was Nowitzki's last playoff game, then it was a fitting one. He scored a team-high 24 points in 35 minutes, nailing eight of his 16 field goal attempts in all the turning, twisting, fading ways we've become accustom to throughout his career.
Carthage, too, abandoned the brilliant Hannibal after he stormed through the Alps to ravage the Roman Empire in their heartland. Hannibal won every victory, but when pleas for additional support to his government went unanswered, he finally had to give up the war.
You can't help but see similarities in Nowitzki. He lives for this time of year, averaging 20 points on 49 percent shooting this series, somehow still the team's best player as a 37-year-old.
"Just everything about the playoffs is what I love," Nowitzki said. "Hopefully in my last couple years, we'll be a part of it every year and we have a good run."
But instead of getting the help he deserves, Nowitzki has been doomed to repeat the same first-round exit over and over again, only satisfying his insatiable competitive desire with memories of winning it all in 2011.
And with the inevitable conclusion in sight, this seems to be how Nowitzki's career ends -- carrying his team to the playoffs, but wishing it was more.
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Still Clutch: Kobe showed Nowitzki respect for game-winner this season
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