- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- They're an unlikely duo.
One is a 7-foot German who left Europe to come to America to play pro basketball.
One is a 6-6 African-American who left the U.S. when he was a kid to go to Europe so his dad could keep playing pro basketball.
One is considered one of the top shooters in NBA history. The other is considered one of the league's top scorers.
No matter the parallels, the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki and the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant remain a pair linked through hoops, not quite the level of Bird vs. Magic mind you, but a pair nonetheless brought together by their mutual excellence in the sport.
"I know him very well," Bryant said of Nowitzki after practice Wednesday, ahead of Thursday's clash at Staples Center. "He's got a good sense of humor too, that kind of gets lost on the court. He's a great guy."
Bryant and Nowitzki have developed their bond through countless All-Star games, but haven't had the battles Bryant has had with many other of his elite peers.
Bryant has history with his contemporaries who have won MVP awards since 2000. Shaquille O'Neal was his teammate; he beat Allen Iverson and the 76ers in the NBA Finals; he has played Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the playoffs six times; he has played Kevin Garnett in the postseason four times (twice each against Minnesota and Boston); he has gone up against Steve Nash and the Suns in the playoffs three times; and he was Olympic teammates with LeBron James.
The one player beyond that list is Nowitzki, who won the MVP award in 2006-07 but has never faced off against Bryant and the Lakers in the playoffs since he entered the league in 1998-99 -- despite the fact Dallas has made it to the postseason 10 straight seasons.
The Basketball Gods haven't quite smiled upon Nowitzki the way they have Bryant. Kobe has five rings, an Olympic gold medal and is widely considered to be the best player of his generation.
Dirk made it to the Finals only once and was up 2-0 in the series on the Miami Heat before dropping four straight to let the title slip away. The year Nowitzki won the MVP, the Mavs were coming off a 67-win campaign -- matching the most wins Bryant's teams have ever registered in a single season -- yet were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the upstart Golden State Warriors. It marked only the third time in NBA history that a No. 1-seeded team lost to a No. 8. Nowitzki and Germany went just 1-4 in the Beijing Olympics before bowing out.
Even the occasion of Nowitzki's reaching 20,000 career points was spoiled last season by Bryant and the Lakers who handed him a loss on his home court. And, while we're at it, Bryant once outscored Nowitzki's Mavs singlehandedly, 62-61, through three quarters of a game.
There is a clear level of respect from Bryant toward Nowitzki, something he doesn't afford all of his opponents.
"It's just work ethic," Bryant said. "It's as simple as that; his work ethic. He obviously has a God-given ability being 7 feet and being as athletic and as agile as he is. After that, it's just been on him, just working on a consistent basis."
When asked earlier this season about Nowitzki's chances of winning the award, Bryant offered praise but didn't go overboard.
"He's one of the best players in the league, bar none," Bryant said. "[But] I'm not going to sit here and just kiss his ass for 10 seconds. He's a great player."
Maybe Bryant is just a little guarded because of how effusive his coach was heaping accolades on Nowitzki.
"He's one of the most prolific guys in the game as far as end-game situations," Phil Jackson said. "He's got the highest percentage of anybody scoring down the stretch."
As much as Bryant is known for being the second coming of Mr. Clutch in Lakerland, Nowitzki's crunch-time numbers outpace Bryant's in several categories. This season Nowitzki is shooting 51.2 percent in the fourth quarter of games compared to 40.2 percent for Bryant, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Nowitzki has also been more accurate than Bryant in the last two minutes of games this season with the score within four points (44.4 percent compared to 38.6 percent) and is slightly better in the last 24 seconds of games this season when the margin is within four (going 4-for-8 in those instances compared to Bryant's 3-for-8).
And being clutch is nothing new for Nowitzki. Over the past five seasons Nowitzki has the best shooting percentage in the NBA, 45.2 percent, in the final 24 seconds of a game when the game is within three points (or one possession) while Bryant is 12th in the league in the past five seasons under those circumstances at 34.4 percent.
"He handles the ball much better than people give him credit for and because of that he creates space and gets to the middle of the floor and hits that lean back," said Lamar Odom, who knows a thing or two from trying to guard Nowitzki over the years. "At 7-1, you're not going to get to his shot or bother him."
"He's definitely a phenom," said Andrew Bynum, who is the same height as Nowitzki yet has never made a 3-pointer in his six-year career. Nowitzki has made 63 this season alone. "The touch on his jump shot is incredible."
Bryant is second to Shaquille O'Neal among active players, and sixth all-time, with 27,628 points. But Nowitzki, who has played two fewer seasons than Bryant, isn't far behind at fourth among active players, and 23rd all-time, with 22,595 points.
Much is made about Bryant's age starting to slow him down as he'll turn 33 in the offseason, but Nowitzki is actually two months older. And like Bryant, who is pushing the limits of his body, averaging 25.2 points in his 15th season, Nowitzki is playing as well as he ever has in his 13-year career, averaging 23.2 points on a career-best 52.3 percent shooting clip.
There might seem like a gap in greatness of the careers of Bryant and Nowitzki, but just like the Lakers' and Mavs' records this season, they're closer than you think.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
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