The most anticipated comeback this NBA season was an obvious one: Derrick Rose’s return after sitting out a full season with an ACL injury. However, there’s another “comeback” story that should be noted, even if it’s more a return to form than a traditional comeback. But it took awhile to get there.
In my 20 years of watching the NBA, I don’t think there was a more satisfying moment than watching Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 playoffs, shutting up every naysayer who said he couldn’t win an NBA championship. He’d already failed twice when the path had seemingly been cleared for him — 2006 (the Miami debacle) and 2007 (the Warriors debacle) — so it was sort of fitting that nobody gave the Mavericks a chance in the 2011 playoffs. But then Dirk went on one of the most incredible individual runs in playoff history, often single-handedly laying waste to the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Thunder — before going absolutely bonkers against the Miami Heat in the Finals.
We all know what happened next: the NBA entered an excruciating lockout, while key contributors to the Mavs’ title run went their separate ways, rendering the 2011 Finals almost an afterthought. Since the Finals win, there have been three constants in Dallas: Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle (quietly one of the three best coaches in the NBA) and Dirk. What didn’t remain consistent was the team’s — and Dirk’s — level of play. Dirk’s loyalty to the German national team hobbled him in the 2011-12 season, and they only managed an eighth seed and a quick exit at the hands of Oklahoma City.
Dirk’s schedule fully caught up with him last season when he missed 29 games — he’d never missed more than six games in a season — while the Mavericks missed the playoffs for only the third time in the Dirk Era. After posting his lowest scoring output since his rookie year (17.3 ppg), it seemed like the Dirk we’ve known and loved for so many years was finally hitting the proverbial wall.
Then, something happened. Maybe missing the playoffs wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It provided Dirk with badly needed extra rest, the results of which we’re seeing now. So far this season, Dirk is averaging 21.2/5.9/2.7 with shooting percentages of — wait for it — 49.1%/42.1%/93%. That’s right: Dirk is only .9% away from the magical 50/40/90 stat line, which he’s flirted with almost every season for the last decade (he accomplished it once — his 2007 MVP season).
The key to Dirk’s success: he doesn’t have to do it all by himself. In the off-season, the Mavericks provided Dirk with a bona fide running mate, the much-maligned Monta Ellis. Ellis has never really been in a great situation, the closest coming (ironically) in his second season when the Warriors upset the #1-seed Mavs in the first round. Under Carlisle, Monta is having one of his most efficient seasons, and is back to averaging more than 20 points per game for the first time in three seasons (not having Brandon Jennings taking away all your shots helps, too).
The devastating potential of a Monta/Dirk combo was on display Saturday night, when the Mavericks visited the (then 17-3) Portland Trail Blazers. The teams traded buckets down the stretch, with Dirk doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the visitors. After a ridiculous off-balance three-pointer by Damian Lillard tied the game at 106-106, Dallas had 1.9 seconds to attempt a potential game-winning shot. In the past, there was one option to defend: Dirk. Saturday, Carlisle went straight to Monta, who ran off a screen and nailed a 20-foot fade-away as time expired.
A playoff berth may very well be in the cards for Dallas this season, but we can’t project beyond that. What we can definitively say though, is that watching a rejuvenated Dirk, and a reborn Monta Ellis, is going to make them fun to watch, regardless of where they end up.