Nowitzki's remarkable third quarter, as he wreaked havoc on a carousel of defenders, turned the Thunder's impossible situation into a historically helpless one.
Second-year center Serge Ibaka, poor kid, might need a personal day to recover from the Nowitzki torture chamber in which he spent Tuesday night's Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, a 121-112 Dallas Mavericks victory.
Ibaka wasn't alone.
Nowitzki, at one point or another during his 41 minutes, torched and/or got fouled by all five Thunder starters and seven of the 11 players who saw action. He drew 16 fouls on mostly single coverage -- 13 through three quarters to help build his 38 points -- and caused two defensive 3-second technical fouls that he converted into two points.
When the fireworks ended, Nowitzki had scored 48 points, a bucket shy of his career-playoff-best 50 from the 2006 West finals, on 12-of-15 shooting. Only one player, Terry Porter with 41 points on 14 attempts, has ever scored more than 40 points in fewer shots in NBA history.
That was possible because Nowitzki made 24 of 24 free throws, breaking Dominique Wilkins' record for most in a game without a miss. Nowitzki was 13-of-13 in the third quarter when he scored 17 points against a string of frustrated, fouling defenders that included, in order, Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant and finally Thabo Sefolosha.
The 13 made free throws -- the second time he's done that in one quarter this postseason (Game 1 versus Portland) -- again tied Nowitzki with Michael Jordan for most in one quarter of a playoff game.
The Thunder tried to be physical with Nowitzki but continually got whistled for hand-checks, grabbing and clutching on the perimeter as they tried to stay close to him. To start the third, Ibaka picked up a fourth foul instantly. Collison entered and got his fourth. Perkins tried and bit on a pump-fake that drew laughter from the sellout crowd. Durant drew two hand-check fouls in five seconds flat. Finally, Sefolosha bodied Nowitzki, who greeted him with a 13-foot banker for the and-1 and a 76-64 lead.
Asked to put Nowitzki's box-score-busting, record-setting night into some kind of rational perspective, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle pursed his lips and said, "No, I can't really."
Then he found words to expound.
"That's part of his greatness is that he's so good that in efforts to prevent him from getting the ball, he draws a lot of fouls and when you get to the bonus, he's going to make 24 out of 24," Carlisle said. "That kind of number is possible, but there are very few guys in this league that can do that. And, unfortunately for us, one of the few others that can is Durant."
Speaking of, almost lost in Dirk's dizzying night was Durant's 40-point performance on 10-of-18 shooting from the floor and his own free throw shooting gallery that saw him go 18-of-19. But Durant didn't get the help -- Russell Westbrook was an out-of-control 3-of-15 from the floor -- that Nowitzki did. Jason Terry scored 24 points with four 3-pointers, and J.J. Barea dazzled again for 21 points, his second consecutive 20-point playoff effort.
As for Nowitzki's reaction to his mind-bending performance, he was extraordinarily nonchalant about it, mostly because what seemed like a blowout really wasn't, a fact that also left Carlisle a bit disconcerted.
The Thunder rallied from 16 down in the fourth quarter to make it 106-101 on a Durant turnaround with 4:02 to go before Dallas pulled away for good.
"Well, it's a win. I mean really, that's all I care about. It was a tough Game 1," Nowitzki said. "They kept coming, especially in the fourth quarter. Durant kept making tough shots. They were always right there. The main thing is we found a way to win. Numbers don't mean anything if you lose."
OKC now heads into Wednesday's practice trying to figure out how to keep Nowitzki from doing this again in Thursday's Game 2. It is entirely possible. During Nowitzki's abbreviated regular season against the Thunder -- just five quarters and change due to injury -- he scored 47 points in 51 minutes. He's up to 95 points in 92 minutes.
The Thunder simply don't possess a defender to stick on Nowitzki. They used single coverage on Memphis forward Zach Randolph in the previous series, taking their lumps at times but managing to contain him other times. But Randolph didn't have the shooters to pass out to like Nowitzki, who had four assists, including a late one to Terry for a game-sealing 3-pointer.
No one took Tuesday's beating as badly as 6-foot-10 shot-blocker Ibaka, who was even crushed in his power zone by Nowitzki, four blocks to none. It's tough to block a 7-footer who shoots a one-legged step-back, Durant noted.
Nowitzki's schooling of Ibaka started 50 seconds in when he drained a 17-footer over him. It was the start of 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting against Ibaka, plus five fouls.
At the Thunder's morning shootaround, coach Scott Brooks said he emphasized to the youthful Ibaka not to get down if the 13-year veteran Nowitzki hits shots, saying that he hits over everyone.
"When I did say that," Brooks said, "I didn't think he was going to make as many shots."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.