- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dirk Nowitzki has labored on the edge of superstardom with a series of deflating qualifiers attached to his portfolio.

Nowitzki is the rare talent who is forever found lacking, curious as that dichotomy is.

Nowitzki undoubtedly has been a challenge to the legend-making intelligentsia of the NBA, because there never has been anyone like him.

He is the 7-footer who is inclined to lead the fastbreak before pulling up to shoot a 3-pointer.

To be fair, that is the old Nowitzki. That was the Don Nelson-inspired Nowitzki.

That Nowitzki lacked clarity, vision and a deliberate approach.

He was one of the few players who could dump a superfluous 30 points on the opposition in the playoffs. He did what he did — a lot of it wondrous, to be sure — but it often lacked the power to vanquish worthy opponents.

Perhaps that is changing.

Perhaps Nowitzki, with the prodding of Avery Johnson, is seeing what he never could see in the past.

That newfound sense, that feeling for the game, manifested itself after Manu Ginobili’s 3-pointer granted the Spurs a three-point lead in the waning seconds of regulation in Game 7.

This is where Nowitzki might have failed in the past. This is where he would have taken one dribble and shot a fadeaway jumper. This is where he would have neglected to use his size and skill.

But this Nowitzki attacked the basket and converted the shot while drawing a foul. His free throw tied the game, which eventually led to the overtime period.

The Spurs had a final chance to claim the game, but it was Nowitzki who blocked Tim Duncan’s shot.

This is the same Nowitzki who seemingly would break out in hives whenever serious perspiration was required on defense. That is not being even-handed. That merely was the perception.

There are only a few special defensive players in the NBA, and even those few are ever more constricted because of the malleable rules that favor the offense.

The easiest way to knock a gifted player down a notch is to say, “Yeah, but he doesn’t play defense.”

Oddly, the so-called premier defensive players around the NBA are found among the teams that play the best team defense, and that usually starts with the player standing closest to the basket.

It has been Nowitzki’s curse — and Mark Cuban’s as well — to have Shawn Bradley in that position at one time and now Erick Dampier.

Neither could be termed defensive anchors. Bradley was an accident; at least Dampier sometimes accidentally gets in the way of someone seeking a layup.

As one of the most unique players ever in the NBA, Nowitzki is arguably the toughest to defend in the game today.

Nowitzki has the physique of a small forward, the height of a center, the hand-eye coordination of a shooting guard and Velcro-like hands.

What he did not have until Monday night was a defining game and series.

Of course, he had plenty of help in the series, which is conveniently forgotten too often in the myth-building business.

Imagine how differently both Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy would be perceived if they had performed in each other’s venue — Wilkins with the Lakers and Worthy with the Hawks.

It is doubtful Wilkins would have been omitted from the NBA’s top 50 list in 1996.

Nowitzki is now in a position to remove all the doubts that have accompanied his ascent in the NBA.

None of the remaining teams — the Heat, Pistons and Suns — is as formidable as the Spurs.

The Spurs not only tested the physical wherewithal of Nowitzki and the Mavericks but the psychological one as well.

The work ahead should be infinitely easier on the nerves of Nowitzki and the Mavericks after they addressed the most daunting inquiry in their midst.

The impressive response came about after Nowitzki demonstrated he now is in command of the game’s nuances.

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