About 20 hours separated the images of Tim Duncan in San Antonio and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. The contrast could not have been more striking.
Duncan is a master at the art of poker face. But as he sat on the bench in the second half of the Spurs’ victory over Golden State on March 19, it did seem that a little bewilderment, or at least surprise, could be detected.
That was understandable. The game was one of the biggest in NBA regular season history, and no one would think a player who has led the franchise to five titles would play only eight minutes – none in the second half – while scoring one point. But that’s what happened and, frankly, it was a strange scene.
Nowitzki is more expressive than Duncan, but still restrained. When he celebrates, he’s not exactly Cam Newton after a touchdown. But during a Sunday afternoon game the next day against Portland, he could be seen thrusting both arms in the air, sticking out his tongue Jordan-style and fist-pumping after another successful shot.
Nowitzki became only the fourth player at least 37 years old to score 40 points in a game. The other three were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Jordan – the first, second and fourth leading scorers, respectively, in NBA history. Dirk, by the way, is sixth but probably two seasons away from catching Wilt Chamberlain for fifth.
But there they were – perhaps the greatest power forward in NBA history and the greatest long-range shooting power forward in NBA history – and their performances were as different as the way they play. So were the comments after the respective games.
“He’s just a great person,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said of Duncan. “He didn’t pout, he was very positive, he was talking to me. I don’t know if many guys in that position would have handled it as well as he did. He was great.”
There are, however, different ways of being great. Duncan’s greatness against the Warriors was off the court. Dirk’s was on it.
“Never underestimate greatness at any age,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said after the Mavericks’ overtime victory. “It’s not like he’s just an older guy who happened to have a good game. He’s been doing this on a somewhat consistent basis all year, coming up with a monster game. We’ve all got to enjoy whatever time we have left to watch him … You won’t see another one like this … ever.”
Actually, you may, but it will be because of Nowitzki’s influence. Seven-footers were once seldom encouraged to make a living shooting 3-pointers, but Dirk has shown that it can be done, so there is little doubt that more will try.
And Duncan’s influence in the future also will be significant. No one has played the game more efficiently than he has. Shaquille O’Neal captured the essence of Duncan many years ago, calling him, “The Big Fundamental.” You can be sure that in the future, coaches will be using Duncan video to teach aspiring big men the correct way to play the game.
As they near the end of their spectacular careers, it appears Dirk has a little more left in the tank than Duncan. Perhaps he should. Nowitzki is two years younger, although he has played only one year less because Duncan stayed in college four years.
The luxury Duncan has, however, is that the Spurs’ front office has already transitioned to the future. Duncan is currently the sixth-leading scorer for the Spurs, whose top scorers are 24-year-old Kawhi Leonard and the 30-year-old Aldridge. Duncan, who will turn 40 on April 25, is averaging only 8.5 points while playing 24.9 minutes – both career lows. He has yet to have a 20-point game this season and has missed 17 games, some because of a sore right knee and the others to rest.
Nowitzki, meanwhile, is still the franchise in Dallas. For five years, the Mavericks have been trying to lure a premier free agent but have not been able to do it. So Nowitzki, who will be 38 in June, leads the Mavericks in scoring at 18.7 points. This season, he has had 27 games with 20 or more points and six with 30 or more.
Unlike the approach of the two players, however, most of this column has been about individual play. And that’s why the images of them in those games a little over a week ago were so misleading. Dirk looked happy; Duncan looked lost. But when they looked at the big picture, they could see a San Antonio team that had the second-best record in the league and is a legitimate threat to win the title.
The victory that Nowitzki celebrated was one of only two the Mavericks had in a 12-game stretch, which put them in a place where the outcome is going to be bad or worse. If they do make the playoffs, the first-round foe will be the Warriors or Spurs. They are a combined 1-4 against those teams, with the only victory over Golden State when Steph Curry did not play.
If they do not make the playoffs, however, help is unlikely to be on the way. They owe their first-round pick to Boston from the Rajon Rondo deal. It is top-seven protected, so the reality is unless they hit a long, long shot and get in the top three of the draft lottery, they will lose the pick.
The contrast in the way the two players looked was dramatic, but you can be sure neither of them was fooled. Duncan’s stats may be down, but his team is way up. And Dirk would trade situations with him in an instant.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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