Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were born two months apart in 1978, and they have been NBA superstars for more than a decade. Each has an MVP award, and Bryant has only a slight edge in career scoring averages and All-Star appearances.
Nobody would compare Nowitzki with Bryant in the metrics that matter most, however. In championships and big-game performances, Nowitzki just isn't in Bryant's league.
Yet after Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks thoroughly outplayed Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers at the end of their comeback victory in Game 1 of their second-round play-off series, then followed it up with a 93-81 victory on Wednesday, the German's teammates think this might be the season their 7-foot centre erases their mutual play-off reputation - although he will have to damage Bryant's invincible aura to do it.
"He always wants the ball down the stretch, and he always finds a way to get it done," said Jason Kidd, the Dallas guard whose defensive savvy also caused problems for Bryant the first two games.
"He likes that stage. You don't find a lot of guys who like that stage. Kobe is one of them, but [Nowitzki] has done a lot of work to get there with him. He and Kobe are the two best players on the floor, and he found a way to get it done on Monday."
On Wednesday, Nowitzki upstaged Bryant by scoring 24 points to lead Dallas to a victory that gave the Mavericks a 2-0 advantage over the two-time defending champions.
Only three NBA teams have come back to win a best-of-seven series after dropping the first two games at home, and the Lakers will have a tough task when the Mavericks host Game 3 tomorrow and Game 4 on Sunday.
Although Bryant is widely perceived to be the NBA's best late-game scorer after a 15-year career filled with clutch plays, some statistics show Nowitzki is a better closer, including the German's superior shooting percentage on last-minute shots in tight games. Bryant has missed crucial shots in several buzzer-beating situations over the past few post seasons, including his miss off the back rim to end Game 1.
Nowitzki scored 11 points in the fourth quarter on Monday during the Mavericks' first ever play-off win in Los Angeles, including four in the final 40 seconds. With the crowd screaming in his ear with 19.5 seconds to play, Nowitzki coolly made two free throws to give Dallas their first lead of the second half.
Their career post-season scoring averages are nearly identical, around 25.5 points apiece, and they are both among the highest in NBA history. But Bryant has scored at least 30 points in 81 play-off games, more than anybody except Michael Jordan, and his steady brilliance has pushed the Lakers to seven NBA finals, including the past three.
Nowitzki's offensive talents are unique among centres, but he still has not led the Mavericks to their first title during a decade of play-off appearances.
He got close in 2006, but Nowitzki shot poorly while the Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead over the Miami Heat to lose the NBA finals.
A year later, Dallas were knocked out of the first round by eighth-seeded Golden State, and Nowitzki went two for 13 in the Warriors' clinching victory after a horrific series effort, forcing him into the bittersweet spectacle of accepting his only NBA MVP award after the Mavericks had been eliminated.
Dallas had won just one round in the previous four post seasons combined, even with Nowitzki averaging more than 26 points per game over the past three years, before knocking off Portland in the first round this spring.
The Trail Blazers set the stage for a typical Mavericks collapse by coming back from a 23-point deficit in Game 4 to even the series - but Dallas responded with two impressive close-out wins.
"We're mentally tougher than we have been," Nowitzki said. "It showed after the meltdown in Portland, coming back and winning two games when everybody said we were dead. We're a lot of veteran guys who have been around a lot in this league."