- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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You see his state of calm every time Nowitzki plops down at the dais for a playoff press briefing. He faithfully takes the mike out of its stand, sinks deeps into his chair and looks as unruffled as someone who grew up dreading interviews possibly can.
He's dropped a hint or two that the motivation for his podium lean-aways is largely comfort-related, since hunching over a table, when you're 32 years old and taller than 7 feet, apparently isn't fun. Yet it also figures that, deep down, Dirk doesn't mind that there's one more move he's known for now and doesn't want to disappoint his audience.
It's an increasingly familiar pose that, intentionally or not, transmits its own message of tranquility.
"I'm living in the moment," Nowitzki announced Monday at his first Finals news conference, summing up his comfort level pretty neatly.
No one knows whether this is Nowitzki's last shot on the big stage -- or if the wait to return will be shorter than five years next time -- but he leaves you with the unmistakable impression that he won't be tormented in his sleep by the prospect of the unknown, or even another punch to the gut in South Florida. He's long since accepted the fact that -- fair or not on a team that has just one franchise player -- whatever happens to the Mavs goes on his résumé in the darkest ink. He accepts that folks who insist on comparing him to Larry Bird rarely seem interested in comparing the quality of their rosters through the years, no matter how many times Mavs coach Rick Carlisle tries to make the point in his interviews about how Dirk might have a ring or two himself already had he played with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
When you watch and listen to him these days, Nowitzki really leaves you with the impression that he'll ultimately be able to handle whatever happens over the next two weeks, even when he admits that 2006 is "gonna stay with me for the rest of my life" if he can't dig out a ring eventually.
"When we win, he gets the credit," said Mavs guard Jason Terry, Nowitzki's only remaining teammate from the 2006 unraveling.
"When we lose, he gets the credit.
"He takes it all on his shoulders," Terry continued. "That's the way it is. He wouldn't want it any other way."
Said Don Nelson, Nowitzki's first coach in Dallas: "I'd say the last few years he's been through about everything you can go through. And he's survived it.
"He's been on both ends of a butt-kicking. It's better to give one than receive one, but he's been through about everything you can go through."
Nelson, for once, has no need to insert any of his trademark hyperbole here. For the past decade, while maintaining his spot alongside Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit on the supremely short list of players to average at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs, Nowitzki has certainly weathered countless setbacks. On and off the floor.
It started with the departure of a virtual brother in free agency in the summer of 2004, when Steve Nash and Mavs owner Mark Cuban couldn't come close to reaching terms on a new contract. Three first-round exits followed the despair of the blown 2-0 Finals lead over the Heat with the first coming against Nelson's Golden State Warriors after the Mavs followed up their Finals flop by winning 67 games. There was also an uncomfortable MVP news conference to grit through right after the Golden State debacle.
Nowitzki, to this day, says he'll never forget "the worst birthday of my life," which fell between Game 5 and Game 6 of the Miami series in '06. There have been family illnesses and challenges, too, along with the unprecedented personal turmoil he played through during the 2009 playoffs, when his ex-fiancée was arrested at his home while the team was in Denver and later sentenced to a five-year prison term for violating terms of her probation in Missouri from a decade-old forgery and felony theft case.
The Nowitzki we see now after all those travails, Nelson said, is a "tougher" Dirk.
Nelson's successor, Avery Johnson, said he sees "a much hungrier Dirk, a more mature Dirk, a more confident Dirk."
We could quibble and point out that Nowitzki was already plenty tough against a rugged Denver front line in '09, averaging 34.4 points and 11.6 points and shooting 53.4 percent from the field, despite the highly public nature of the chaos in his life away from work. The larger point is that failures and tribulations, which were still relatively new in his life before Dallas' first Finals five years ago, have long since steeled him.
"I think the most memorable thing about that Denver series is what happened to me off the court, and I was still able to go out there and perform and do what I love to do and still help my team," Nowitzki said. "Unfortunately it wasn't enough to beat Denver, but that was the storyline that year: That I was able to still compete and play my game even though the whole stuff was goin' on.
"If you lose in the first or second round, it doesn't really matter how good you play."
True statement unless you're sweeping the Lakers. That's a second round that put Nowitzki back on the playoff radar, inviting the nation to get a long, detailed look at how he operates at this advanced stage of his career.
Scouts will tell you that Nowitzki helps diminish his defensive deficiencies by calling out the other team's plays almost every trip down, contributing heavily to the Mavs' improved communication on D. Nowitzki's teammates, meanwhile, are still talking about the speech he hit them with in L.A. after Game 2, when he took the uncharacteristic step of addressing the team en masse to warn them about series leads that seem too good to be true.
"I hate to say it," volunteered Mavs teammate Jason Kidd, "but he's very underrated. He doesn't get his just due."
Not that Nowitzki is stopping to look for it. The fickle nature of love and hate from the NBA public and its press corps is a source of amusement after all these years. Nowitzki has proved that he can roll with pretty much anything at this point unless you ask him to pop in a tape from '06.
"You know what?" Nowitzki said. "I've never watched one game over, 'cause it would just, I don't know, make me throw up probably. I don't know what I would do, but I would get sick. Never to this day, even that summer or any other summer, did I go back and watch one game. I've completely stayed away from it."
Marc Stein looks at the five major changes in Dirk Nowitzki since his first trip to the Finals five years ago.