Near the end of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Dirk Nowitzki stepped to the line and drained his 23rd and 24th consecutive free throws -- a mind-boggling feat and an NBA record. A few days later, after the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-1, and advanced to their second-ever NBA Finals, I decided to see how many I could make in a row on my backyard hoop. I was a pretty good ballplayer in my day, and free-throw shooting was a specialty. Surely it couldn't be that hard.
After about an hour, my arms were weary and my confidence shot. With no crowds and no pressure, the most I could make was 12.
Damn, that Dirk Nowitzki guy is good.
Of course, we knew this already. Or at least we should have. Ten NBA All-Star appearances, a league MVP trophy and 11 straight 50-win regular seasons should be proof enough.
Yet still we doubt Dirk. We've been doubting him way too long.
We wonder if he's too soft. All the experts have said so. Or maybe he doesn't want it bad enough. Or perhaps it's just that his style of play is too European -- a ridiculous gripe that people resort to when they simply can't put their finger on Dirk's idiosyncratic approach to the game. Or maybe it's just the disappointment fans have felt seeing their dreams of an NBA title clank off the back rim for the past decade.
But watching Nowitzki in the Thunder series, sinking every shot that mattered, you got the sense that he was fully conscious of the charges that have been lodged against him, and that he is, at long last, determined to answer them. That's why he didn't flinch in this year's playoffs when things got tight against Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and Kevin Durant, the NBA's top scorer.
This time, Dirk is leaving no room for doubt.
If he can extend this glorious run a little longer and slay the mighty Miami Heat and its three-headed dragon -- LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade -- the soft-spoken 7-footer from Würzburg, Germany, will become the Biggest D in Big D.
And one of the unlikeliest folk heroes in sports history.
Wired to win?
Dirk Nowitzki can look awkward, on the court and off.
In postgame interviews, instead of sporting an Armani suit or a stylish lid, he's usually wearing a button-down shirt and trousers (just another day at the office, right?). With his wavy blond hair, deep-set eyes and four-day facial growth, he looks like a cross between a California surfer dude and Lurch from The Addams Family. Nowitzki definitely doesn't fit in with the glamorpusses of the big-time Dallas sports scene, all bronzed and big-haired. And he doesn't try to keep up with the Romos and Joneses of the world, who are at home on red carpets and in the white-hot spotlight.
As a player, too, he has often been seen more as a freak of nature than a franchise player, impossible to categorize and determined to do things his way. He's a 7-footer who can shoot better than most 6-footers. He handles the ball like a guard, and feels more at home on the three-point line than in the post. Oh, and let's not forget about his near-perfect free-throw shooting.
In recent years, Nowitzki's game always seemed vulnerable in the playoffs. Teams would rough him up, double-team him and ruin his rhythm. Never especially strong on defense, he would turn into an outright defensive liability during big games. But he hasn't let that happen this postseason. He has taken the ball to the basket hard, drawing fouls or getting dunks. He has made acrobatic shots from the post (and all over the floor, really). When his team has needed him most, in the fourth quarter, he has come through every time.
So why the big turnaround, after all those years of playoff disappointments? Experts will tell you it's the addition of center Tyson Chandler in the middle and coach Rick Carlisle's emphasis on tenacious team defense. And they'd be right.
But I think it's more psychological than that. Nowitzki hears the clock ticking. So do the other veritable NBA geezers on the Mavericks roster (Jason Kidd, 38; Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic, all 33). Not one of them has a ring yet. How many more chances will they have?
Nowitzki and Terry came oh-so close in 2006. The Mavs were up 2-0 on Miami and ahead in Game 3 in the Finals. Then they lost four straight.
"The meltdown came to define the franchise as postseason patsies and Dirk Nowitzki as a player who couldn't lead a team to a championship," Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas wrote recently. "Only Nowitzki and Jason Terry remain from '06, but every player on the team has seen the scars."
This postseason has been all about banishing those old demons.
But my nephew, a Thunder fan who was visiting during the most recent playoff series, has different a theory: Nowitzki is a robot.
How else do you explain the near-flawless performance in Game 1 (48 points) against Oklahoma City, when Nowitzki dropped shots from all over the court and over every defender? Lakers fans surely feel the same way, after Dirk and the Mavs swept them out of the Staples Center like a big pile of Jack Nicholson's nail clippings.
The old Dirk -- leader of the one-and-done Mavs from years past -- has been kidnapped and replaced by Robo-Dirk, a sweet-shooting 7-foot terminator. Impervious to the pain of the past, Robo-Dirk systematically wipes out all opponents in his path. Hey, it's a theory.
Even if you're not a fan of basketball, the 2011 NBA Finals is rife with great story lines. It's a shot at redemption for Nowitzki and Terry after having lost in 2006. It's a chance for LeBron James to deliver a giant "I told you so" to all the critics who questioned his decision to leave Cleveland and sign with Miami in the offseason.
Most excitingly, it's a face-off between two modern basketball titans, both chasing their first titles, who just so happen to be polar opposites.
James is the NBA's posterizing man-child -- a 6-foot-8, 245-pound hard-body who can bench 325 pounds. Nowitzki is not very muscular -- at 7 feet and 245 pounds, the only bench he cares about is the one he parks his bony butt on when he's tired.
James can blow by any player in the NBA. Nowitzki likes to shoot fade-away jumpers with his knee lifted in the air like a ballet dancer.
James is the self-proclaimed King, who turned his "Decision" to sign with the Heat into a narcissistic prime-time special on ESPN. Nowitzki handled his own decision in more modest fashion: He was a free agent before this season, but he quietly decided to stay in Dallas and accept less money so that owner Mark Cuban could add more pieces to the puzzle. Nowitzki put his faith in a city that hasn't always had faith in him.
These superstars are a study in contrast, and yet you'd be hard-pressed to say which is better right now. James is averaging 26 points per game in the playoffs, Nowitzki 28.
On paper, the Miami Heat is the better team. They have superior talent, younger legs and the experience of having beaten the Mavericks when it counts most. They should win the NBA Finals.
So why do I feel like this is Dirk's year?
I've been watching the Mavericks in the playoffs for the past decade, and the recurring theme has been: plenty of talent, not enough determination.
That wears on you. And although Dirk would never say so, all these years of being called an underachiever have made him work harder, fight harder.
There will be no shortage of determination this time around.
On the Monday before the Finals began, I was still thinking about Dirk's amazing free-throw feat and decided to take another crack at it. I blocked out all the distractions -- the neighbors' barking dogs, the gusting wind, the fact that I've never made that many free throws in a row in my life -- and I started shooting.
Five in a row. Breathe.
Twelve in a row. Nice.
My son came out and asked, "What are you doing, Papa?" I told him and he rooted me on through shots 15, 16 and 17.
Shot 18 went high off the back rim ... and fell through. Everyone needs a lucky bounce or two.
My 19th shot came up short, but I don't think Dirk and the Mavs will this season.
They've got a little more magic left. I say Mavs in six. They'll celebrate on Miami's floor -- a slice of sweet revenge for 2006.
And maybe then we'll finally stop doubting Dirk.