Sam Hitchcock

In Dirk Nowitzki’s defense, he probably got robbed in the 2006 NBA playoffs by atrocious reffing. In a sport where in one season you can completely redefine your legacy, poor Nowitzki is falling into a familiar trend – shrinking in crucial moments when his team needs a big play. Nowitzki, of the Dallas Mavericks, probably pictured the 2010 playoffs, now marching full steam ahead, playing out differently. He had another phenomenal year, finishing the season with 25 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and averaging 38 minutes a night. The guy has been a force; a 7-foot center possessing the uncanny ability to have guard like skills. Tenacious and gritty, he even has a sneer, which oozes “competitor!” to his opponents – by all means the guy should be a superstar.

But ever since game three of the NBA Finals in 2006, where the Mavericks were up 2-0 on the Miami Heat and then proceeded to lose four straight to Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, it has been a struggle to stay in the upper echelon for Nowitzki. In 2007, he won the MVP and as the first seed, Dallas was poised to finally make its mark on the league. But the 2007 playoffs proved even worse for Nowitzki and his team. The Golden State Warriors, coached by Don Nelson executing “Nellieball,” were able to shock the NBA with an unfathomable upset of Dallas, making it the first time an eighth seed had beaten a number one in a seven game series. After his shortcomings in the NBA Finals and an inexcusable “choke” the next year to a team led by the unstable Stephen Jackson, Nowitzki was battered and bruised by the talking heads on ESPN. Partly due to his international (German) background and to the sports media’s penchant for kicking a high profile athlete when he is down (see: Tiger Woods), Nowitzki had a fall from relevancy as LeBron reached new heights and Kobe learned to embrace a team game.

Dallas lost in the first round in 2008 and in the second round in 2009. It seemed Nowitzki’s stint as a premiere super duper star was over. But this season things seemed different. Teammate Jason Kidd was in sync, Jason Terry was deadly from the arc, Caron Butler was a significant impact player after being snatched at the trade deadline and it seemed that perhaps the Lakers would break a sweat on their way to the NBA Finals.

Nevertheless, the San Antonio Spurs, led by a power forward with too many miles on his legs to be effective anymore (Tim Duncan), a point guard who is arguably past his prime (Tony Parker) and a shooting guard with a massive receding hairline and a broken nose (Manu Ginobili), have pushed the Mavericks to the brink, taking a 3-1 lead as of Sunday night. With the series going back to Dallas for game five, Nowitzki will need to show major determination and patience to prove that he is not a regular season star who cannot come through when it really matters (a la Karl Malone, Vince Carter and Amare Stoudemire).

Things seem grim when you recognize that a veteran, battle tested team like the Spurs are in the driver’s seat of a playoff series and may be unstoppable. However, NBA fans should not count out the feisty German; a recurring theme for the past couple of years in sports has been that of sports figures squashing their critics and doubters while reaching the pinnacle of their professions (Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning).

Nowitzki’s true character will be showcased in the next week. If disappointment presents itself, one can only hope he will work that much harder and get that much fitter and dangerous in the post. At the age of 31 and factoring in his height, even someone who takes as good care of himself as Nowitzki will break down physically eventually. With LeBron crushing every foe in his path and Kobe still at his peak, a cynic would say Nowitzki’s chances of stealing a title past his prime are bleak. But the rub is that cynics probably said the same thing about Kevin Garnett and David Robinson. The lesson: the future is unpredictable. Just ask fellow European Pau Gasol.