Dirk Nowitzki has never been an easy sell for the NBA.
He does his best work far from the basket, rare for someone so tall. He doesn't dunk enough to make the highlight reels. His facial expressions range from mildly peeved to slightly surprised, and most nights it's hard to tell one from the other.
Beyond eye-popping numbers, he offered the TV talking heads hyping the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City very little to work with.
But without Kobe's Lakers or Tim Duncan's Spurs in the finals this season, Nowitzki became the story by default. It's now about him and the aging Mavericks getting one last shot at redemption for a collapse against Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals. This was supposed to be their last shot at a championship before Kevin Durant and the Thunder emerged as the new power out West.
Nowitzki shredded that script Tuesday night.
So much was made about the needed rest he got after Dallas swept the Lakers that it seemed as if he was leading the cast from the movie Cocoon instead of a still very capable veteran team. Nowitzki started by making 10 of his first 11 shots — he finished 12-for-15 from the field — and knocked down every one of the 24 he launched from the free-throw line.
After his 48 points, six rebounds, four assists and four blocks propelled the Mavericks to a comfortable 121-112 win in Game 1, someone asked Durant what made stopping Nowitzki so difficult.
"He's a 7-foot jump shooter," Durant said. "And he shoots one-legged fadeaways."
He obviously didn't think it warranted any further explanation, so Durant simply shrugged, then added, "Yeah."
Durant was 10 years old when Nowitzki, a month shy of 33, played his first NBA game.
Durant is shorter at 6-9 and much quicker, but like Nowitzki, largely a jump-shooter who routinely draws the other team's defensive focus. Nowitzki may be as close to Larry Bird as the NBA has to offer, but Durant is not far behind. And after Oklahoma City teammates Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins tried guarding Nowitzki with little success and several fouls to show for it, Durant took a shot.
He drew two fouls in a five-second span, quickly handing the duty over to Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden. Neither did much better.
"I was trying to play him physical. I tried to knock the ball out of his hands and got two fouls," Durant said. "He's strong."
The knock on Nowitzki used to be that he was too soft. Yet he didn't disappear in the big games, just the opposite. He's one of only four NBA players whose point and rebounding totals, good enough during the regular season to merit selection to the All-Star team 10 times, actually go up in the post-season.
Small wonder he is still fixated on the one that got away. After opening the finals five years ago with two wins at home, Dallas dropped four straight to Dwyane Wade and Miami.
"We came so close in '06," Nowitzki said before Game 1 of this series, "and if we never get to the finals again, I'll be thinking about that the rest of my life."
That emotion was forgotten by tipoff time Tuesday night. By game's end, Nowitzki's demeanor was businesslike and his voice flat as he recounted one of the best playoff performances in league history.
"I was really looking to shoot early and was able to get my rhythm after the first couple of shots," Nowitzki said. "I kept attacking and my teammates kept feeding me and feeding me and I was able to take advantage over some smaller players."
It was hardly that easy, and Game 2 promises to be tougher still.
"We can't get discouraged," said Durant, who finished with 40 points. "He's going to make shots. He's going to make off-balance shots with a hand in his face."
Nowitzki has been doing that for what seems like forever, more appreciated by his peers than the fans, save those in Dallas. You'd think it's impossible for someone so good for so long to be underrated. Nowitzki doesn't think so, at least not with that glaring hole in his résumé.
"Numbers," he said with flawless logic, "don't mean anything if you lose."