CHICAGO – Games like Tuesday’s encounter against the Chicago Bulls are the ones that make Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle appreciate Dirk Nowitzki even more.
For the better part of three quarters at the United Center, Nowitzki struggled with his shot. But in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods, he collected 15 points, five rebounds and six assists as the Mavs rallied to upend the Chicago Bulls, 132-129.
It was one those vintage games by Nowitzki, who banged his back in the first half but fought through it while delivering some clutch baskets.
"It doesn’t really hurt, and I didn’t really get back spasms,’’ Nowitzki said. "It just tightens up on me.
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"I don’t know if I got hit or elbowed. It was already a little tight before the game and in the first half it got worse and worse, and I went to the locker room early at halftime and tried to loosen it, but we couldn’t really get it to pop. So it’s alright. I’ll get some treatment and be ready to roll tomorrow (against Milwaukee).’’
Coach Rick Carlisle has no doubt his No. 1 go-to player will be able to answer the bell when the Mavs face the Milwaukee Bucks at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the finale of this four-game road trip. And even on a night when Nowitzki struggled with his shot, the Mavs know he can get hot at any moment, as he did when Tuesday’s game was on the line.
"He shoots it close range, short mid-range, mid-range, intermediate mid-range, long midrange, long twos, threes,’’ Carlisle said of Nowitzki. "He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen for a guy that size, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better shooter period.
"When I say the best of the best I’m talking about guys like (Larry) Bird, and Reggie Miller was one of the greatest shooters ever. Reggie played until he was 39, because he took impeccable care of his body.’’
Now in his 17th season, Nowitzki is a fanatic when it comes to taking care of his body. That process helped the 36-year old Tuesday when he got banged around in the first half, but came back and gutted it out in the second half and the two overtime periods.
"He got bumped a little in the first half and his back was bothering him,’’ Carlisle said. "He was able to shake that off and get back in there.
"He kept grinding away. This was a grinding game, a physical game. That’s how they play and you’ve just got to keep going.’’
As the years keep piling up on his stellar career, Nowitzki keeps going and keeps adding to his legacy. The 7-footer from Germany signed a three-year, $25 million contract this past July, but not even he knows how much longer he’ll play.
"I don’t like getting into long-term discussions about it,’’ Carlisle said. "I think the reason he’s been able to be so great for so long is he goes from meal to meal.
"He’s concerned about today, getting to lunch and then getting to dinner and then getting to the game. He’s focused on the game.’’
And that’s where Carlisle wants Nowitzki to be focused.
"You’ve got to take this thing incrementally,’’ Carlisle said. "Because if you get too far ahead of yourself talking about things like that, I think you can take your eye off the ball.’’
A jumper by Nowitzki increased the Mavs’ lead to 127-123 late in the second overtime. And he shook off whatever first-half back ailments he had by playing 20:22 of a possible 22 minutes of the fourth quarter and two overtime periods.
"It just tighten up some – it’s nothing, owner Mark Cuban said of Nowitzki’s back. "That’s why he was out there playing.
"And he came back and hit some big shots.’’
Nowitzki finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and a season-high 10 assists, but was only 8-of-22 from the field after sitting out last Saturday’s game in Philadelphia so he could rest. Still, despite the poor shooting, Nowitzki found a way to get some key baskets and crucial assists when the game appeared to slipping away from the Mavs.
"I didn’t really have it going,’’ Nowitzki said. I had a tight back there, it was already (tight) before the game.
"In the first half I must have gotten hit or moved it wrong, and then basically I was battling it for the rest of the night. It loosen actually kind of up there in the fourth quarter and overtime, and at that point it was time to battle through it.’’
It was a battle to see which players could withstand the torture test which this game presented.
"Obviously I was a little tired like everybody else, and I just tried to make us as many plays as we can on both ends of the floor,’’ Nowitzki said. "I just tried to do whatever I could do.’’
As it turned out, Nowitzki did more than enough while playing 42 grueling minutes.
"He’s totally committed, his work ethic is as good as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around Bird and some of these other guys that were really the very best of the best,’’ Carlisle said. "He’s just very unique.
"For a 7-1 guy, there’s never been a guy that can shoot the ball from virtually anywhere.’’
And Nowitzki’s shot-making Tuesday came during critical times when the Bulls were making a run and threatening to pull away with a victory. But Nowitzki, along with some incredible back-breaking shots by Monta Ellis, helped keep the Mavs afloat
"He’s a championship player, he was the (2011) NBA) Finals MVP, he’s been a league MVP, a bazillion time All-Star,’’ Carlisle said. ‘He’s got all those credentials, but winning the title is the ultimate respect, and that’s gotten most people’s attention.
"And then you look at the longevity and how he’s been passing people on the all-time scoring list, it’s a phenomenal achievement. We’ll never see a guy quite like this again.’’