Dirk Nowitzki will soon be 33. A former league MVP, he already holds practically every meaningful record in the history of the Dallas Mavericks. He's rising in the ranking of greatest players in NBA history, boosted by career playoff stats that are near the top of the charts.
And, get this: He's still getting better.
In leading the Mavericks to the Western Conference finals for the first time in five seasons, Nowitzki has shown off the latest innovations to his already extensive "toolbox" of skills -- a one-legged, step-back jumper that's almost impossible to block and a left-handed hook shot.
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Throw in his consistently improving defense, and perhaps this will be the season Nowitzki and the Mavs discover the thing they are missing most, a championship.
"It's the best I've seen him play in his career," said Pau Gasol, the Lakers' big man who struggled to keep pace with Nowitzki last round. "He's in a great rhythm. He's shooting extremely well and confidently. You can't take anything away from him."
Gasol wasn't using a figure of speech. He really wasn't able to take away any of Nowitzki's favorite spots on the court during their series, a key reason why Dallas swept the two-time NBA champions.
When Gasol crowded Nowitzki at the edge of the free throw line, the German created space by leaning back on one leg, putting up the other knee and flicking in a rainbow jumper. He seemed to hardly ever miss this unorthodox-looking shot, quickly turning it into a fan favorite.
"When I see it, I still get caught up like, `Dang!"' teammate Jason Terry said. "I know it has to be demoralizing to the other team."
Nowitzki built his game on the unorthodox, making it from Germany to the NBA at age 20 because he was a 7-footer who could make 3-pointers. His guru, Holger Geschwindner, figured that would be the best way to break into the big time, and planned to build the other elements of Nowitzki's game as he got older.
They have, with spectacular results. He's the 23rd-leading scorer in NBA history and has plenty of time to move way up on that list. In the playoffs, he's among four players who have averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds; his 25.6 points per game are 10th-best.
"The great ones come back every year with a new weapon or a new counter to one of the things that's an important weapon to their game because teams are constantly adjusting to them," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "I've seen more unique defensive coverages on him than any player I've ever been around because he's so unique with his ability to be a great one-on-one player."
Funny thing is, Nowitzki didn't intentionally learn the new step-back.
"I don't know where the one-leg thing came from," he said, smiling. "It just developed. It was really just creating a little separation for me to get the shot up."
His ability to maintain the proper form while off-balance stems from all his other work with Geschwindner, who is in Dallas for the postseason, as usual.
"Our goal was always from the beginning that there is not one shot in the game that you can't make," Nowitzki said. "So we practice all sorts of shots. In practice, we shoot left-handed free throws, we shoot left-handed bank shots outside the paint, we shoot runners, we shoot hooks, all sorts of turnarounds. ... We always practiced a little bit of everything so I'm in position to succeed."
The left-handed hook is another example.
Terry said he's seen Nowitzki hit 25 in a row in warmups. And while he uses it in the regular season, he doesn't do it much.
But with about a minute left in Game 3 against the Lakers, with Gasol having pushed Nowitzki way left of the basket and with another defender charging at him, Nowitzki gave it a try.
"I was stuck a little bit, and I slung something up there," he said. "And it went in."
Nowitzki's amazing combination of shots have long earned him credit as a great scorer. But his reputation is a bit hollow because he and Dallas have never won it all, despite being on a run of 11 straight 50-win seasons.
The Mavs have only reached the NBA finals only once, in 2006. They were up 2-0 and leading by 13 points in Game 3 but couldn't close it out. They won 67 games the next season and Nowitzki was the MVP, only to get eliminated in the first round. Both the franchise and its star player have been trying to overcome those flops ever since, with little success.
Nowitzki said Wednesday this is the best he's played since leading Dallas to the '06 finals. It shows in the fact the Mavs have won a franchise-record six straight playoff games. He's leading the way, of course, averaging 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds.
"I want to win a championship before I retire, that's my goal," he said. "I don't play for nothing else. That's really all that's left in my career. We've got a great shot this year and we've got to go for it."
Dallas will host the first two games of the Western Conference finals starting either Sunday or Tuesday, depending on when the series between Oklahoma City and Memphis wraps up. The Thunder and Grizzlies were tied at 2 going into Game 5 on Wednesday night.