Posted May 18 2011 2:05AM
DALLAS -- For the first time ever, there was obvious tread wear on Kobe Bryant's tires this season. The cracks in Tim Duncan's foundation began to show several years ago.
Yet Dirk Nowitzki's game still looks timeless, like it could go on forever.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh bolted to the beaches of Miami. Amar'e Stoudemire fled to the bright lights of New York.
Yet Nowitzki never really considered setting one foot outside of Dallas.
Longevity and loyalty, it turns out, are a difficult combination to beat.
It wasn't just the 48 points Nowitzki scored in the Mavs' 121-112 Western Conference finals opener win over the Thunder that were jaw-dropping, it was the ease with which he did it, coming on just 15 shots from the field.
It wasn't the NBA playoff record for most free throws in a game without a miss -- 24-for-24 -- that took your breath away, but the manner in which Nowitzki ran through nearly half the Thunder's roster that tried and failed to stop him.
Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha might as well have been trying to hitch a ride on the winds of a twister. Nowitzki filled the lanes on the fast break to finish. He drove baseline to rattle the rim with dunks. He came off the pick-and-roll time and again to bury jumpers and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.
"He's been doing it for a lot of years against a lot of great players," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He had a good rhythm. He got off to a good start. He was making shots and then we were fouling his jump shots and he's a terrific jump-shooter."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about his stat line is that Dirk almost bagged a half-century without even attempting a single 3-point shot.
But the amazing thing is that in his 13th NBA season, Nowitzki doesn't appear to have lost even a half step or the slightest elevation on that reach-to-the-sky extension on his shots.
"Dirk spends a lot of time of time working on his game, keeping himself ready," said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
Duncan is 35 and is just a shadow of the former MVP who carried the Spurs to four championships. Kobe, who has five championships on his belt, will turn 33 in August and at times this season and in the playoffs looked out of gas and out of ideas.
Nowitzki, who'll turn 33 in June, is still seeking his first title and maybe it's the quest that keeps him young. Of course, his critics will say it's his so-called "soft" style of play. Or maybe it's the much lower mileage on his wheels after all of those first- and second-round playoff eliminations.
But know this. For all the talk that LeBron has done about needing someone beside him to share the heavy lifting required to win a championship, nobody has been on his own more than Dirk. Since Steve Nash was allowed to flee to Phoenix, Nowitzki has been a virtual solo act in Dallas. His co-stars are a 38-year-old point guard in Jason Kidd and a streaky, conscienceless jump-shooter in Jason Terry
Know this as well: If any member of last summer's bumper crop of free agents had a reason to go running into the night screaming for a change of venue and a more loaded roster, it was Dirk, who couldn't have been blamed if he'd had an inclination to change teams.
"Not really," Nowitzki said. "This is where I wanted to be. I had a great talk with Cubes (team owner Mark Cuban), a meeting, and all I wanted to hear was that he's gonna go for it and he's gonna keep bringing players in for us to ultimately get our goal. So that's all I really needed to hear and it was an easy decision after that."
The harder decision will be for the Oklahoma City coaching staff to come up with a different plan for trying to handle him. Brooks had said before the game that he does not generally like the idea of double-teaming a big scorer, because it can leave perimeter shooters wide open.
But Ibaka had tried his hand at Nowitzki and had three fouls before halftime. Then he picked up his fourth on the first possession of the third quarter. Collison, who was so effective in Game 7 of the Memphis series in dealing with Zach Randolph, was the next victim to get tied into knots.
Harden and Sefolosha were clearly too small to handle the job one-on-one. Even the 6-foot-10 Durant took time out from scoring 40 points to take his turn, but that short-lived experiment ended when he drew back-to-back fouls midway through the third quarter.
On the night, Nowitzki took a combined 39 shots -- field goal attempts and free throws -- and missed only three. How is that possible?
"He's a 7-foot jump-shooter," Durant said. "He shoots one-legged fadeaways."
Is it that simple?
"Yeah," said Durant.
But only Dirk makes it look that easy.
He manages to keep shining when his contemporaries are fading. He chose to stay when he had every reason to leave to fill his trophy case.
All of which would make Nowitzki's championship, maybe not only the most unlikely, but the most satisfying.
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