Posted Jun 10 2011 11:21AM
DALLAS -- Everyone has been shooting off the wrong legacy, you might say, in this 2011 NBA Finals.
So much attention has been heaped on Miami Heat forward LeBron James since his team took the Eastern Conference finals two weeks ago: Will James finally get his ring? Will "The Decision" that led to all the derision pay off so swiftly? Is he up to the moment? What was with Game 4 the other night or, for that matter, fourth quarters in general? And always, how will Cleveland feel about all this?
Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, with little of James' LeDrama and apparently none of his Madison Avenue marketing sizzle, plugs along in a half-speed, George Gervin-way toward a breakthrough in his own legacy.
He may, in fact, already have achieved it with his performances and other work in carrying Dallas to the brink of its first NBA title. ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy riffed during Dallas' 112-103 Game 5 victory Thursday night at American Airlines Center that Nowitzki had become a household name around the globe, achieving -- as "Dirk" -- the lofty one-name status among basketball fans that Michael, Magic, Kareem, Wilt, Kobe, Elgin, Shaq and a few more enjoyed at various times. Y'know, the NBA's equivalent of Elvis, Cher, Prince, Snoop and Ozzy
Sealing the deal, though, by helping the Mavericks win one more game in this best-of-seven championship series would kick Nowitzki's profile higher still. Much higher.
There are four presumptive Hall of Famers in the Finals -- Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- and all but Wade are in search of their first rings. Someone is going to get it. Someone else is going to stay on a list with Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, Karl Malone and several other greats who -- one-name worthy or not -- never won a title.
It's a simplistic list, probably an unfair list, the sort of list you rarely hear about from other sports. But it's the NBA's list, part of the league's culture, and Dirk, LeBron and Jason desperately want off of it.
Legacy? That is something different. Nowitzki already has a pretty terrific legacy -- greatest European import in NBA history -- and he has been adding to it, methodically, diligently, since his arrival in 1998. That the fellow for whom he was traded on that Draft night, Robert Traylor, died suddenly last month at age 34 adds some poignancy to what Nowitzki has been doing and perspective to how long he's been doing it. But the work he has put in has not wavered.
Nowitzki has built his legacy piece by piece. (One hesitates to say "brick by brick" for a shooter of such proficiency.) But the Mavs' unique 7-foot power forward has placed and mortared a couple more rows already in these Finals:
• He has played through whatever pain from, and definitely the inconvenience of, a messed-up middle finger on his left hand. Say hello to Dirk's little friend: A small splint that protects the torn tendon near the tip of that damaged finger. No, it's not his shooting hand, but it is his guide hand as well as one of two catching hands, rebounding hands and defensive hands.
• Nowitzki played through a 101-degree fever in Game 4, giving him the "sick" game that every NBA all-timer ought to have on his playoff resume. Mostly only Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas and Willis Reed do, though, so that's another nice piece of separation from some peers past or present.
• He has racked up late-game heroics twice, beating Miami's Chris Bosh to the left to win Game 2 down in Florida and then doing likewise against Udonis Haslem, only to the right, near the end of Game 4. In between, Nowitzki struggled and failed in the final minute of Game 3 with a turnover and a missed jumper against Haslem. But at least no one was asking him afterward about shrinkage.
In Game 5 Thursday, Nowitzki didn't need to score over the final 2 ½ minutes because Jason Terry and Jason Kidd came through with five points each. But the big German's presence never was neglected by the Heat defense. He did get the baseline dunk at 2:39 that made it 102-100 and broke the night's final tie and he scored a game-high 29 points.
• Nowitzki has accomplished all this -- 10 All-Star selections, the 2007 NBA MVP, 120 playoff games, 28th all-time in points scored -- by staying put as a one-franchise star. He has adapted to the changes around him, season by season -- he and Terry are the only Mavs left from the 2006 Finals team -- and even game-by-game. Career backup J.J. Barea suddenly became the Mavs' starting point guard in Games 4 and 5, but Dirk just did what Dirk does.
"He's been in this position before in '06 and they've put teams around Dirk for a while now, and he hasn't gotten back here," Kidd said late Thursday. "He's enjoying the moment but he's also focused and understands how hard it is to win a championship."
• He has coped with nearly the same level of defensive ministrations from Miami as any lone star gets, although he has not faced the Derrick Rose-wrinkle of being guarded yet by James. With Miami out front in the series, that seemed like a maneuver coach Erik Spoelstra was keeping in his pocket for the right moment. Now that the Mavs are within a game of the championship, it might be something Miami avoids so as to not make James' Finals experience any worse.
• Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway jumper -- a staple of his game forever -- suddenly is getting touted as No. 2 on the NBA's all-time list of unstoppable shots. James ranked it right behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's legendary sky hook. High praise? That's like ranking right behind Steve McQueen in all-time cool.
• He has drawn more awkard comparisons to Larry Bird since the Finals began, based on their shooting ability, their star status and two original but overlapping skill sets. Based, too, on their pigment and hair color. It's silly and lazy, but Nowitzki isn't the one comparing. He's too busy chasing down the ring, a category in which he trails Bird 3-0.
• His shooting coach and mentor, Holger Geschwindner, is getting as much acclaim and air time as a PGA swing coach. Many NBA players hang out with agents or, worse, boyhood barnacles who can lead them astray. Nowitzki travels the world with a taskmaster who looks like his dad and has yet to be photographed smiling.
• Nowitzki has shown himself to be a taskmaster himself at times, barking at Terry, Barea, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the rest of them as part of the leadership role he has assumed over the years. He did it at blast levels in Game 2, when Terry slept on Mario Chalmers' game-tying 3-pointer near the end. But he also told the Dallas sixth man, "I've got your back," as they exited the timeout huddle. That's slapping Steve Kerr and passing the ball to Steve Kerr for a championship game-winner, that's what that is.
• He has shown a dry sense of humor and an easy style to the public through his media sessions. Nowitzki referred to Kidd as a "fossil" and after Game 5 mentioned how much Terry likes to hear himself talk, well, pretty much anytime. His habit of yanking the microphone out of its stand, leaning back and going hand-held, like a Vegas lounge singer, is such a part of his interview-room shtick now that the league's media aides lay the mike, standless, on the table when Dirk is the next scheduled speaker.
• He has risen to this occasion. Only Wade has kept pace, actually outscoring Nowitzki in the series 142-135 but with the added benefit of two more All-Stars at his side as help and/or decoys. You want clutch? Nowitzki has outscored the much-hammered James 52-11 in the fourth quarters in this series. And he's shooting 43.9 percent, a nod to Miami's defensive obsession on him but also an encouraging sign to Dallas fans who believe Nowitzki still has a scoring explosion in him before this ends.
That doesn't really matter, though. Not now. Legacies can wait till summer.
"I really can't enjoy it much," Nowitzki said, "because in the playoffs for some reason, you're always on edge. You don't sleep much. You think basketball 24/7. I can enjoy it, hopefully next week when we're on vacation."
By which point, win or lose, Nowitzki will have earned it.
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