After leading the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 championship, Dirk Nowitzki’s career trajectory now fits neatly into a familiar narrative: an MVP tested by the crucible of playoff defeat before overcoming the doubters to raise a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
A paradigm-changing 7’0 who shot jumpers instead of banging in the post, people had always questioned whether he could be a primary offensive option on a title team. There was the 2003 Western Conference Finals when was knocked out by an awkward-looking knee injury, the blown 2-0 series lead in the 2006 NBA Finals and the 2007 first-round upset of a 67-win Dallas team.
When he gave credit to the individual defense of the Denver Nuggets front-court in 2009, it was yet more proof that he lacked the necessary “killer instinct”. So when the Mavs finally won, the explanation seemed clear: his previous failures had molded him into a different player from the man who came up short so many times before.
It’s a nice story, but it omits a rather inconvenient fact: Dallas’ second-round victory over San Antonio in 2006, when Dirk played championship-caliber basketball and repeatedly came through in the clutch. San Antonio had won titles in 2003 and 2005, with Derek Fisher’s miraculous 0.4 second heave in 2004 the only thing preventing them from a three-peat.
And after losing to the Spurs in 2001 and 2003, the Mavs had added a defensive-minded head coach (Avery Johnson) and two massive 7’0 centers (Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop) to combat Tim Duncan. Dallas fought San Antonio for first-place in the Southwest Division for years, with both teams regularly exceeding 60 wins, but it had been a one-sided rivalry: the Spurs were the champs, the Mavs the chokers.
Because division winners still received the top three seeds, the heavyweight battle between 63-win San Antonio and 60-win Dallas in 2006 came in the second round. The teams couldn’t have been more evenly matched: the outcome of five of their seven playoff games was undecided when the final buzzer of regulation sounded.
Dirk and Duncan put on a duel for the ages, culminating in a Game 7 where Dirk had 37 points and 15 boards to Duncan’s 41 and 15. The Mavs took a commanding 3-1 lead with OT victories in Games 3 and 4 in Dallas, but their playoff demons haunted them at the end of Game 5 in San Antonio, when Jason Terry punched Michael Finley in the crotch and was suspended for a Game 6 in Dallas.
After racing out to a 20-point half-time lead in Game 7 in San Antonio, Dallas slowly let their arch-rivals creep back in, and with 30 seconds left, the score was tied 101-101. Duncan passed out of a double team, finding an open Manu Ginobili along the three-point line. When Manu drained the open three-pointer, the AT&T Center erupted. The narrative had been confirmed: the Spurs made the winning plays in crunch-time, the Mavs did not.
Everyone knew the post-game questions: Was this Dallas team really that different than the defense-less squads San Antonio had beaten earlier in the decade or was upgrading around Dirk a fool’s errand?
With 10 seconds left, San Antonio put Bruce Bowen, their 6’7 defensive ace, on Dirk. Everyone knew what was coming: a fade-away three over Bowen’s outstretched arms. Instead, with the weight of a franchise on his back, Dirk put his head down and attacked the basket. He had five inches on Bowen, using every last one to power up a close-range shot at the basket.
Manu saw Dirk making his move as soon as it began, racing across the court to contest the shot. But just like 2004, the Spurs came up a few inches short in 2006. Dirk released the shot a split-second earlier, turning a decisive block into a back-breaking foul that gave him a free throw that tied the game.
With ten seconds left in a Game 7 against the defending NBA champions on their home-court, Dirk beat one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA off the dribble from the top of the key and scored three points right in the heart of one of the league’s best defenses.
It should have been the iconic shot of the 2006 playoffs, but it was overshadowed by Dwyane Wade’s NBA Finals. With the Mavs and Heat tied 2-2 and less than two seconds left in overtime of Game 5, Wade drew a shooting foul on Dirk in the paint, effectively clinching a championship.
Dallas won only one playoff series over the next four years, as most of the core of that Finals team – Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Marquise Daniels – was shipped out. After another first-round loss to the Spurs in 2010, Dirk was 31 and even farther away from a championship than he had been at 27 when the acquisition of Tyson Chandler gave his career a second wind.
The new-look Mavs went 12-3 in the Western Conference Playoffs, setting up a rematch with the Heat in the 2011 Finals. But this time, when Wade attacked the rim, he was met by a 7’1 235 second-team All-Defense center. And just as he had against the Spurs in 2006, Dirk hit the clutch fourth-quarter shots the Mavs needed to win a championship.
Despite averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds on 46% shooting in 124 playoff games, Dirk’s career had been defined by his search for the heart of a champion. But like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, it had been inside of him all along. He just needed a little help from his friends for everyone else to recognize it.