King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Dirk Nowitzki starts playing like a superstar just in time to save the Mavericks' season -- for now.

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We should all thank Dirk Nowitzki. We really should.

If the Dallas Mavericks superstar had been doing all along what he suddenly started doing with about three minutes to go in Tuesday night’s Game 5 — that is, playing like a superstar — this crazy thriller of an NBA playoff series between the Mavs and the Golden State Warriors would have been the usual 1-over-8 first-round walkover.

Nowitzki scored 12 points in the final 3:06 as Dallas went on a 15-0 run to steal the game, 118-112, and stay alive in the series. The Warriors lead 3-2 with Game 6 Thursday night in Oakland.

In the other Tuesday game, the Toronto Raptors coughed up all but one point of a 17-point second-half lead at home, then hung on to beat the New Jersey Nets 98-96 to force a Game 6 in Jersey Friday.

It’s not exactly high-class analysis to say that if Nowitzki had only been averaging four points per minute all along, the Mavericks would have made short work of the Warriors. Shoot, one point a minute would probably have done it.

But it wasn’t Nowitzki’s results over that three-minute span, it was his approach. It was as though, after four games and 45 minutes of wandering around looking like just another pretty good player, Nowitzki had an “aha!” moment: Oh yeah, I’m the best player out here.

Reminded me of that Monty Python skit about the Greece vs. Germany philosophers’ soccer match: “There’s Archimedes. And I think he’s had an idea! [Archimedes kicks the ball.]”

The guy who had spent most of this series and all of Tuesday’s second half looking to pass first, spotting up at the 3-point line, jacking up fall-away jumpers and trying not to look confused on defense suddenly became the dominant force for which the Warriors had no answer.

Do that all along, Dirk, and — well, this series wouldn’t have been such a humdinger, so thanks, Dirk. Thank you for being you.

The Mavericks jumped on the Warriors early, racing out to a double-digit lead in the first seven minutes with Nowitzki playing well at first, with eight points in the first half of the first quarter. But his shots stopped falling and he settled into a one-of-the-guys role as Dallas built what became a 21-point lead about midway through the second quarter.

Nowitzki went from one of the guys to where’s Dirk as the Warriors closed to within seven at the half, then tied the game 67-67 on a Jason Richardson 3-pointer about four minutes into the third quarter.

And the people said, “Where’s Dirk?” And Dirk said, “Here I am, in the corner, looking to make a nifty pass along the baseline.” And the people said, “Where’s Dirk?” And Dirk said, “Here I am, on defense, trying to figure out who I should be watching.” And the people said, “Where’s Dirk?” And Dirk said, “Here I am, throwing up a fade-away three with my path to the basket looking as free and clear as the Autobahn.”

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And the Mavericks led by seven, and then the Warriors went on a 12-4 run to lead by one, thanks in no small part to Matt Barnes, who plays with a confidence and fervor all out of proportion to his talent. Maybe Nowitzki was taking notes, or maybe a light went on after 4.9 games of watching Baron Davis do pretty much whatever he wanted, at least until he got thrown out for scratching his nose or something.

They went back and forth for a few minutes and then Golden State went on a three-minute, 11-1 run climaxed by a wild Davis 3-pointer to give the Warriors a 112-103 lead with 3:20 to play.

During that stretch, with the Mavericks’ season slipping away, Nowitzki, the leader and star, barely touched the ball. He took no shots. He grabbed a rebound and committed a foul. Every time the ball did find him, he got rid of it like it was on fire. Austin Croshere and DeSagana Diop managed to get shots off, though the Mavs’ signature play during the stretch was the turnover.

It didn’t look like much at the time, but Nowitzki started the turnaround by hitting a catch-and-shoot three at 3:06. After a trade of fruitless possessions, Nowitzki rotated from the weak side and blocked Barnes’ layup attempt. He then took a pass from Devin Harris, faked Richardson out of the gym and nailed an additional three. Two minutes to go, 112-109.

TNT announcer Dick Stockton: “Dallas fans may be wondering where he has been.”

Yeah. Non-Dallas fans too.

On the Warriors’ next two possessions, first Richardson and then Stephen Jackson missed jumpers over tight defense by Jason Terry, though Nowitzki’s presence in the paint may have persuaded Richardson to terminate a drive and pull up. Between those trips, Harris hit a layup but missed a free throw to leave Dallas behind by one, and then following Jackson’s miss, Josh Howard hit a cutting Nowitzki, who was fouled at the basket.

That’s right. Nowitzki. Cutting. To the basket.

Dirk — there he is! — hit both free throws for the lead with 48.6 seconds left. The Warriors missed two more 3-pointers the next time down, Davis fouled out — though it looked like he thought better of intentionally fouling Howard and pulled up, but he still got whistled — and when Howard made one and missed one and Barnes and Jackson knocked the rebound out of bounds, the Mavericks were able to salt the game away.

Nowitzki’s belated heroics may have been too little, too late if the Warriors had tried the novel strategy of not hoisting up jump shots early in the shot clock with a nine-point lead and three minutes to go.

But live by that wacky Don Nelson, die by that wacky Don Nelson. Nelson does it his way, and his teams don’t work the clock for you or anybody else, Charlie. All you have to do is beat the other team, and Nowitzki, finally, played like the superstar he is and carried the Mavericks as they did just that.

Nowitzki has shown flashes of this sort of thing before, most notably and consistently during last year’s run to the Finals. The problem is, he can’t be counted on to play big. If the switch that Nowitzki flipped at his “aha!” moment 44:54 into Tuesday’s game stays on, the Mavericks could still pull out this series — especially if Jackson, ejected again for Driving While Being Stephen Jackson, is suspended for a game — and contend for the title.

But history says that switch doesn’t stay on.

Previous column: Have we reached steroids fatigue?

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