Nowitzki relishes role in crunch time
DALLAS -- The German kid who used to stand in the corner with the game on the line has grown up.
Dirk Nowitzki has developed into one of the NBA's most dominant clutch players. That's not an opinion. It's fact, and it's backed by a bunch of statistics:
As a 7-footer with shooting guard skills, Nowitzki has always been a matchup nightmare. However, a maturation process had to take place before he had the mentality to be the Dallas Mavericks' go-to guy in game-deciding moments.
Early in his career, Nowitzki knew his place in the crunch-time pecking order with the Mavs' Big Three. Michael Finley was the first option. Steve Nash was next. Nowitzki was the perimeter threat who spaced the floor.
"Now he wants that shot," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "There's like no doubt in anybody's mind that he's taking that shot -- and you can't stop it."
Nowitzki, who might be the most humble superstar in the NBA, has even cultivated a crunch-time swagger. His array of celebratory (often goofy) gestures is approaching the depth of his arsenal of offensive moves.
There's the classic Dirk dagger face, an eyebrow-scrunching/tongue-wagging look usually accompanied by an uppercut fist pump and displayed after drilling a win-sealing shot.
Last season, he added a routine of tugging the bottom of his jersey with one hand and extending his index finger on the other overhead, which he went with late in his franchise-record 29-point fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz and after both of his overtime buzzer-beaters.
And he debuted the Double Guns -- a flexing of both biceps that earned him great grief in the locker room -- after an and-1 drive that highlighted his 11-point overtime period against the San Antonio Spurs.
The emotional displays are simply an extension of the mentality a player must have to thrive in such situations.
"We all know this league is a lot about confidence," Nowitzki said. "That's really it. Once you get the ball, your teammates believe in you and you believe in yourself that you can make that big play down the stretch. For the team, I've got to keep coming."
It doesn't matter what Dirk has done for the first 45 minutes or so. He still expects to deliver when Dallas needs him most. For example, take a look at his late heroics in the Mavs' past two games.
Nowitzki had an awful night against the Charlotte Bobcats ... until he scored the Mavs' final 10 points in regulation, forcing overtime with a personal 6-0 run in the final 1:16. He followed that up in the extra frame by hitting a pair of go-ahead fadeaways in the final 24 seconds, including a 10-footer off the dribble with 1.7 seconds left that stood as the game winner. He made seven of his final 11 shots in a game that he started 1-of-11.
A couple of nights later, the New Orleans Hornets held Nowitzki to a season-low 10 points. Eight of those came in the fourth quarter of the 94-90 win, including four in the final minute.
"The definition of a franchise player is that he wants the responsibility for winning and losing," said coach Rick Carlisle, who compared Nowitzki's clutch demeanor to ex-Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller's. "He wants the ball in his hands when the game is being decided, and the only thing he thinks about when he gets the ball in his hands is finding a way to win the game."
Added Jason Kidd: "He loves that stage. When we need a basket, he loves to have the ball, to make the play. He just loves the atmosphere. He doesn't panic."
Nowitzki notes that he isn't the only accomplished clutch shooter on the Mavs. He often calls Jason Terry one of the best in the league. Kidd is also a cold-blooded spot-up shooter. Nowitzki won't hesitate to give up the ball and get one of them a wide-open look if he's double- or triple-teamed. Dirk just wants the opportunity to make the decision.
It's not a coincidence that the Mavs have been so successful in close games (18-5 last season and 8-1 this season in contests decided by five or fewer points). Nor is it a coincidence that Nowitzki has become better with age in clutch situations.
"I think once you get older, more experienced, the game slows down for you down the stretch," Nowitzki said. "Early [in a career], you might rush and be like, 'Hey, the game's on the line; gotta do something quick.' Whereas now, you take your time, you're more poised and you're just more confident.
"If I take my time, I feel like I can get a good shot up."
Debating that point is as difficult as defending Dirk with the game on the line.