Rarely does Gregg Popovich wax poetic about anyone, let alone an opposing player of the San Antonio Spurs.
Few players, if any, have given Popovich more heartburn over his tenure than the Big German. But that didn’t stop him from talking up Nowitzki’s character, amongst other things, prior to Tuesday’s game at the American Airlines Center, one of the last times the two will ever face each other.
“All I can say is Dirk is a spectacular example of a competitor on the court and a great human being all at the same time,” Popovich said prior to tip off at the American Airlines Center. “He competed with a ferocity. He loved winning and hated losing, but he was classy in the sense that he knew how to do both. He knew how to handle both. That’s why he garnered the respect of his teammates, opponents, and fans for all of those 21 years.”
Speaking of heartburn, Nowitzki knocked down his first three shots, including two 3-pointers in the first quarter, for a quick eight points to give the Mavs an early first quarter lead. Those, however, would be the last points of the night for Nowitzki as the Mavs (27-40) dropped their sixth straight, 112-105, despite a career-high 34 points from Jalen Brunson.
Nowitzki, 40, of course, has not publicly said that this will be his last season. If it is, he will have gone out much in the same way Spurs great Tim Duncan did, without a “shower me with praise, going away” tour.
“You mentioned he and Tim. Those are two guys that have gotten over themselves a long time ago,” Popovich said. “They do their job and they go home.”
Dirk did that for the 1,507th time on Tuesday when he moved 27 points away from passing Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) for sixth place on the all-time scoring list. He did that 57 times against Duncan, with the Big Fundamental winning 35 of those.
Tuesday’s game was the 77th time he faced the Spurs, more than any other team. He’s also faced San Antonio 33 times in the playoffs.
He’ll have one more chance to play the Spurs (39-29) this season when Dallas travels to the Alamo city on April 10 to close the Mavs’ regular season.
“There aren’t too many of those examples of somebody who played that great for that long and was also a wonderful human being that did all the right things for the entire life of time,” Popovich said. “He’s a special, special person in my book.”
Popovich recalled when good friend Don Nelson first told him about Nowitzki when Nelson traded with Milwaukee for the No. 9 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft and the rights to the shaggy-haired European.
“Nelly would tell me about this kid and when he arrived you can see, right off the bat, the kind of skill he had, “Popovich said. “But he was still kind of frail. He didn’t have the strength yet and needed some time to figure out the size and physicality of the league. It didn’t take him very long. But you could tell he was going to grow.”
Not only did he grow physically, but he grew the game in ways many thought possible. A 7-footer that wouldn’t post up and spent most of his time around the perimeter? Wait, what?
“He’s one of those guys, there have probably been like five or six superstars that have cemented the idea, mostly in the minds of Americans, that there are great players all around the world,” Popovich said. “People here really didn’t believe that for a long time. There’s always a reason why they wouldn’t matriculate and be successful, either a coach, or a GM, or an owner would think that. But he was one of those guys that changed everybody’s mind so that they couldn’t ignore the fact that there are great players around the world.”
There’s no ignoring the impact Mavs rookie Luka Doncic has made in the league already. The Slovenian has won four-straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards, the first to do so in his first four months since Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16.
“He’s surprised a lot of people, No. 1,” Popovich said. “I don’t think a lot of people knew who he was. All the scouts and the teams obviously knew. But he’s been a great surprise for the fans and for basketball. I think he’s in that category of player where it’s not that he’s a great scorer, or great defender, or rebounder, he’s a beautiful basketball player. He does everything.”
Doncic, who was questionable before the game with a mild knee sprain, finished 1-of-7 from the free throw line for 12 points to go along with seven assists and six rebounds.