Dirk Nowitzki proving his toughness during Finals


Dirk Nowitzki drives past Mike Miller during Game 4 of the NBA Finals. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Dirk Nowitzki has dealt with a torn tendon in his left middle finger since the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but it didn’t stop him from driving left around the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh to make the winning layup two nights later. He had a bad sinus infection that led to a triple-digit fever before Game 4, but he still was able to drive right around Udonis Haslem for the decisive basket.

Throughout this postseason, Nowitzki has done a lot to change his old image as a player who lacked toughness and also has eliminated some inaccurate labels about his ability to lead his team or deliver in tight situations. He scored 29 points in Thursday night’s Game 5 win.

Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations, wondered why it has taken everyone so long to notice. “It’s like, where have you been?” said Nelson, whose team dealt for Nowitzki on draft night in 1998. “I’m not saying that to be trite or cute, but we’ve seen that his whole career here, so we’re really spoiled in Dallas to have a guy like that, to see him develop and get to the point where he is today. The path that he’s taken is cool to be a part of it. . . . That guy has been through the stinking wringer. It’s been tough. This is the same Dirk we’ve seen for 11 years.”

Nowitzki said he doesn’t expect any extra credit for playing through the nagging injuries and illnesses that he’s had to fight through this series. “Everybody at this stage, after playing eight, nine months on a high level has something going. Nobody is completely healthy. So it’s time to fight through some stuff, and once the game gets going, the adrenaline starts flowing. I think everybody is out there and giving it their all.”

Nelson said Nowitzki’s performance on Tuesday, when he scored 21 points, was the Mavericks’ “Willis Reed moment” and was just the latest example of his hunger to win. “I don’t think there is anything that would’ve prevented Dirk from playing — broken bone, broken leg — in that fourth quarter,” Nelson said. “Like all great players, you find a way. You shut off the physical, and all great players have that psyche, their mind is able to overcome whatever limitations they have.”

Nowitzki has never made a big deal about his legacy or how he’s perceived, but after suffering some early exits after losing in the 2006 Finals, he is only concerned about reaching the finish line. At this time of the year, he has no choice.

“We all know every game in the playoffs can be a huge momentum swing. So you always want to win the game,” he said. “After the games you don't sleep much. So basically for a month and a half, two months, you're living on the edge every night. You're thinking about it. [You] eat, breathe, sleep basketball, and that's what's fun about the playoffs but also very draining. We have one more week to go, both teams, and we're going to go for it. Both teams are going to get their vacation afterwards.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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