The German stands to be a winner after this NBA Finals is over whether his Dallas Mavericks win or lose against Miami Heat.
Dirk Nowitzki is no longer a soft touch
The biggest party of Dirk Nowitzki's career was going strong. Teammates, friends and the rest of the 20,000 people who had been shouting "M! V! P!" since the first quarter were on their feet in appreciation of him and the Dallas Mavericks.
And Nowitzki wanted no part of it.
A few minutes into the celebration for winning the Western Conference finals, Nowitzki pried off his new "2011 NBA Finals" cap and headed to the locker room.
Reaching the finals no longer qualifies as a big deal to Nowitzki. He has been there before, in 2006. He was the league's MVP in 2007. He carried Germany's flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics.
As he has made clear, on and off the court the past six weeks, all that matters is winning the title.
"There is no second-place finish in this league," he said. "You get nothing for losing the finals."
The team does not.
But Nowitzki will walk away from these play-offs with a new reputation regardless of whether the Mavericks or Miami Heat are crowned champions.
He has long been an All-Star, but Nowitzki has lacked the unqualified, widespread admiration and appreciation from the average fan.
By powering Dallas past Portland, sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers and showing Oklahoma City Thunder how the big boys get things done at this time of year, Nowitzki has redefined his legacy.
"This ride he's been on has been incredible," his teammate, Jason Kidd, said.
Nowitzki is averaging 28.4 points per game in the play-offs, and he has scored 40 twice, including 48 in the opener of the West finals.
The real eye-popper is his average of 9.7 points per fourth quarter, the best by anyone in the play-offs since 2006 and the best of anyone to get out of the second round since 2003. Among those he trumps are the best efforts by recent NBA finals MVPs Kobe Bryant (9.6), Paul Pierce (9.0) and Dwyane Wade (8.8).
Udonis Haslem, the Heat forward, covered Nowitzki in the 2006 finals, which Miami won in six games. He knows Nowitzki now presents a much tougher challenge.
"He's just as big a threat down low as he is on the perimeter," Haslem said. "He's a complete player and right now he might be the best player in the play-offs."
Nowitzki has put to rest the idea that he is a 7-footer who shoots 3-pointers but is afraid to mix it up in the paint; no one can shoot 9.3 free throws per game in the play-offs while hanging out behind the arc.
He is not a shutdown defender, but he is no liability. Just ask his vanquished foes LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Kevin Durant.
As for the notions that he cannot create his own shot or is not a Bryant-like leader, Nowitzki put that to rest in Game 4 of the West finals.
Dallas trailed by 15 points with five minutes left, headed to a 2-2 series tie, when Nowitzki took over. Hitting all sorts of ridiculous, off-balance shots, like his new one-legged, step-back jumper, he scored 12 points in a 17-2 finish that forced overtime. At the end of OT, he set up the key score by drawing defenders to him and passing to an open Kidd in the corner.
Two nights later, Nowitzki proved it was no fluke. He capped another late rally with a go-ahead 3-pointer, then made a pair of free throws to seal the series.
The debate is no longer whether he belongs among the greatest players in his generation, but how high up on the list. His coach Rick Carlisle has called his star among the 10 best players in league history.
Erik Spoelstra, the Miami coach, may have framed it best, calling Nowitzki "one of the most unique players in the league because of his size, his skill". Spoelstra has a guy named LeBron James who could be described the same way, perhaps setting up some tantalising, late-game action when Dallas has the ball and they are matched against each other.
Nowitzki is the Mavericks' career leader in pretty much every significant statistic. He is the face of the franchise, not just currently, but all-time. There were some great Dallas teams before he arrived, but the greatest era revolves around him. For a comparison across all sports, think of Tom Brady and his impact on the NFL franchise the New England Patriots. Save for all those championships, of course.
The organisation matters to Nowitzki. That is why, when he was a free agent last summer, teams did not woo him. He did not shop around for another club that would have put him closer to a title - like, for example, James, Chris Bosh and Wade did - because he did not want to win a championship anywhere else.
Once Mark Cuban, the team owner, promised Nowitzki that his heart and wallet remained committed to chasing a title, the big German signed for four more years. He took about US$4 million (Dh14,7m) per year less than the maximum because he wanted to make sure there was enough money to spend on his support cast.
That is how he leads. Another example came after Dallas won their second straight game on the Lakers' home court. Seeing teammates celebrating in the locker room with too much gusto, he reminded them the series was only halfway done.
"I think it's his growth as a player, understanding the moment and a situation," Kidd said. "He's the best player, he's our captain. We look to him when things are tough and when things are good.
"He felt it was time for him to say something. He picks his spots. When he talks, everybody listens."
One thing he does not talk about is his status among league hierarchy.
"That's all media talk to me [about]," he said. "That's all something we can talk about in 10, 15 years, when my career is over. Right now, I'm chasing my dream. We came so close five years ago. It took a long time to get back to this stage. We obviously want to win. We'll see what happens in these next two weeks, I guess."
By then we will know whether he is part of the conversation about "best player never to win a ring" or his place in the debate of "best player", period.
NBA Finals schedule
Miami v Dallas
Today: at Miami
Thursday: at Miami
Sunday: at Dallas
June 7: at Dallas
June 9: at Dallas-x
June 12: at Miami-x
June 14: at Miami-x
Miami Pts Reb Ast
Joel Anthony 3.3 5.1 0.5
Chris Bosh 18.6 8.9 1.1
LeBron James 26.0 8.9 5.5
Dwyane Wade 23.7 7.2 4.1
Mike Bibby 3.6 1.9 1.2
Dallas Pts Reb Ast
Tyson Chandler 7.3 9.3 0.3
Dirk Nowitzki 28.4 7.5 2.7
Shawn Marion 11.2 6.3 2.1
DeShawn Stevenson 3.5 0.7 0.7
Jason Kidd 9.9 4.5 7.7
The match up
Chris Bosh (Miami) v Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas)
Nowitzki is having a great post-season, scoring 28.4 points per game and shooting nearly 52 per cent from the field. He had two 40-point games in the Western Conference finals. Bosh is coming off an excellent East finals, averaging 23.2 points per game. Edge: Mavericks.
LeBron James (Miami) v Shawn Marion (Dallas)
James has done it all, from clutch 3-pointers to timely defensive stops against their opponents’ top offensive player. Marion allowed the Mavericks to overcome the loss of Caron Butler in January. Edge: Heat.
Dwyane Wade (Miami) v DeShawn Stevenson (Dallas)
Wade averaged 34.7 points and won MVP honours when Miami beat Dallas in the 2006 finals. As unpopular as James is, Wade, below, could hear the loudest boos from Mavs fans. Stevenson is a good defender, but Dallas will insert a back-up when they need offensive help. Edge: Heat.
Mike Bibby (Miami) v Jason Kidd (Dallas)
Bibby rarely has been a factor since joining the Heat during the season. Kidd has played terrific defence, guarding Kobe Bryant and the much-taller Kevin Durant at times, and might get a crack at Wade in big spots. Edge: Mavericks.
Joel Anthony (Miami) v Tyson Chandler (Dallas)
Chandler gives the Mavericks an interior defensive presence they long lacked, and he can score some, too. Anthony can give the Heat a boost with a timely offensive rebound or blocked shot but provides little scoring.Edge: Mavericks.