To paraphrase country star Toby Keith, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan ain’t as good as they once were.
But here’s betting that, at some point during this first-round Texas Tango of an NBA playoff series, that the two old war horses will be as good once as they ever were.
Maybe more than once.
For Nowitzki and Duncan, every trip to the playoffs represents a chance to show greatness. Someday, history will remember them as two of the best big men ever, which is amazing considering just how different they are.
And you never know when a playoff appearance might be their last. That’s just a cold, hard truth when players age — 35 in Nowitzki’s case, 37 for Duncan.
“It’s a showcase for two of the 12 greatest players of all time,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Both of those guys have been more than 10-time All-Stars, league MVP and finals MVP. There’s only a dozen guys that have done that, and you’ve got two of them.
“They still play like they’re in their prime, both those guys. And so, this is a treat for people who appreciate NBA basketball and the history of the game. You’ve got two guys whose love and respect for the game is so high, and their work ethic and standards are so high that they’ve kept it going in their mid-30s as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Indeed, it’s special and is to be appreciated. The opportunity to watch legends doesn’t happen all the time. Jack Nicklaus had a magical moment at the ’86 Masters when he was well past his prime. Those are the kind of performances that live on forever.
Nowitzki and Duncan are capable of those things.
“We’ve had some great games,” Duncan said of his history against Nowitzki and the Mavericks. “We’ve put up some classics against each other, playoff games, regular-season games, whatever it may be. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Rarely have two elite players who essentially play the same position gone about their jobs in such radically different ways. And yet, the similarities between them are at times uncanny.
For instance, the Nowitzki step-back fadeaway jumper has become one of the trendiest shots in the league. Yet, Duncan’s face-up bank shot comes from pretty much the same spot on the wing as Nowitzki takes the bulk of his shots.
Duncan is a beast on the boards and around the rim, using strength and sneaky quickness to create space and get off easy shots.
Nowitzki pops out from the screens that he sets for the Mavericks guards and is as automatic from 20 feet as most players are from 2.
And of course, he has the 3-point weapon, something Duncan never tried to master. Sometimes, you got to know your limitations.
Perhaps the most noticeable similarity between them is the way they lead. Neither of them has a demonstrative bone in their body, although they both have their ways of getting points across to teammates and referees.
“They’re leaders, and they’re not too vocal,” said Jae Crowder. “They lead by example. They go out, and it speaks for itself what they’ve done on the basketball court.”
Nowitzki said he and Duncan don’t share a lot of time together. They see each other at All-Star Games, and that’s about it. They talk. But they aren’t close friends.
“I mean, I like him,” Nowitzki said. “I think he’s about as quiet of a superstar as you can get, and obviously I’m not the rah-rah guy for my 16 years, either. We’re both pretty laid-back and go about our business. We didn’t try to make a brand out of our names. We’re just trying to go out there and win games and compete.
“I think we both go about our business the same way, and that’s what I like about him. It’s who can execute their stuff and play the hardest.”
In short, these are two players who are easy to like because of the way they approach their jobs.
“He’s done everything,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Nowitzki. “He needed to rebound more, and he did. He’s got a myriad of shots. Every year we see new things, whether it’s his fadeaways or his drives or his spins, his pump fakes. Every year he got better in some aspect of the game and worked himself into position offensively where he was impossible to guard.”
That’s not just an opposing coach lobbing compliments to a player he doesn’t want to make mad. On a late-season road trip in Los Angeles, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni explained what makes Nowitzki so tough.
“Dirk’s biggest asset is you’re guarding him so hard that the other guys can go off,” D’Antoni said. “Monta Ellis can put 40 on you in a heartbeat because of it [the attention to Nowitzki].”
Duncan and Nowitzki have one last thing in common: health. Both have been relatively injury-free throughout their careers.
That’s a major reason Nowitzki doesn’t take it for granted that he and Duncan will be butting heads yet again in this playoff series that is a mismatch on paper when you think of it being a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 8 seed, but remains capable of producing riveting plot lines because of the people involved.
At the very least, it’s a good bet Nowitzki and Duncan will be as good once as they ever were, and maybe more than once.
Only a dozen players have made at least 10 All-Star appearances, won the regular-season MVP award and been MVP of the NBA finals.