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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Never too late to see Nowitzki is great

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DALLAS -- This is the best Dirk Nowitzki we've ever seen, and we've seen some great versions. The one in 2006 led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals. The one in 2007 won the league MVP. The one in 2009 earned a spot on the All-NBA first team, something that eluded the current version, but I'm telling you it doesn't matter.

This is the best Dirk Nowitzki ever, and I'll tell you why.

It's the smartest Nowitzki ever. It's the most efficient. It's the most unstoppable, and I'm not writing this simply because Nowitzki went off Tuesday night for 48 points in the first game of the Western Conference finals. I'm writing this because it's true, and I'm not the only one saying it. TNT analyst Charles Barkley, who hasn't been high on Nowitzki in earlier years, chose this year to call him the best player in the NBA.

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Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, albeit a bit more biased than Barkley, recently called Nowitzki "a top 10 player in NBA history."

I saw both those comments from afar, and couldn't understand what was going on. The best player in the NBA, this year? One of the top 10 players in the league, ever? Made no sense to me. Not from afar.

Then I saw it Tuesday night. And it made sense. All of it. I'm not saying Nowitzki is the best player in the NBA now, or one of the top 10 of all-time, but I'm saying those comments don't seem so farfetched anymore. Not to me. Not after Tuesday night.

Because this Dirk Nowitzki has simplified the game, made it so easy on himself that it's almost not fair. In his own way, Nowitzki is as big a freak of nature as LeBron James. He doesn't run or jump or have muscles like LeBron, but Nowitzki is the biggest great shooter in NBA history. There's not anyone even close. A 7-footer who shoots like Chris Mullin or Reggie Miller? That's not stoppable. Neither is Nowitzki.

The younger Nowitzki played with more moxie than this one, using his surprising speed and agility to beat big men down the floor, whether he was sprinting to the 3-point line or barreling all the way to the rim. He was good at that stuff, too. He made the All-NBA first team four times from 2005 to '09, and he has been on the second or third team every other year since 2001. He was a second-teamer this year.

But the stuff he's doing now ... it's cruel.

"When you're guarding Dirk Nowitzki," Barkley said the other night on TNT, "all you need is a cigarette and a blindfold."

So true. Because of his historic combination of size and shooting ability, Nowitzki has a go-to move that simply cannot be stopped. He rarely hunts 3-pointers anymore -- earlier in his career he attempted nearly five per game; now he's trying less than half that, and he tried none Tuesday -- because he found an easier way to score. He gets position somewhere on the wing, and it doesn't even matter where. If he can get within five feet of the basket, he goes there. If he can't get any closer than 18 feet, he goes there.

Nowitzki is nearly impossible to stop when he backs down before squaring up and taking the mid-range J. (Getty Images)  
Nowitzki is nearly impossible to stop when he backs down before squaring up and taking the mid-range J. (Getty Images)  
Then he calls for the ball.

At that point, the defender's only hope is that Jose Juan Barea is running the point for the Mavs, because Barea is more likely to careen into the lane than he is to look for Nowitzki. But if Jason Kidd is running the Dallas offense, well, it's like Barkley said. Grab a cigarette and a blindfold, because Nowitzki is about to execute the most unstoppable go-to move in basketball. He catches the ball, pivots away from the defender, and faces the basket. And then he shoots.

See how simple that is?

"He had a rhythm," OKC coach Scott Brooks said after Tuesday's game. "He had a rhythm that I don't know if the ball even hit the rim."

It's unstoppable because he's 7 feet tall. He shot in the face of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, both of whom are 6-10. He shot in the face of Kevin Durant, who's 6-9. Nowitzki could do that because he's taller and has a high, quick release, and even if the defender does everything right -- Ibaka is a long-armed, quick-footed athlete who led the NBA with 198 blocked shots this season -- Nowitzki has another weapon in his arsenal.

"He shoots one-legged fadeaways," Durant said.

Unstoppable. I've seen other guys with other gifts, explosive players like Jordan and LeBron and Kobe, simply out-athlete their defender to get a shot whenever they wanted. Nowitzki's go-to scoring move -- post up anywhere, face the basket, shoot -- is more in the vein of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook. It's coming. If you're the defender, you know it's coming. But whether it goes in or not is up to Nowitzki, and only Nowitzki. Because you're not blocking it.

Fouling isn't an option, either, because that's an automatic two points. Nowitzki hit all 24 of his free throws in Game 1, a single-game NBA postseason record for free throws without a miss, and he shot 89.2 percent from the floor this season. He also shot a career-best 51.7 percent from the field. Coming into the season he was a 47-percent shooter for his career, and his best season was 50.2 percent. To shoot nearly 5 percentage points above his career average, and 1.5 percentage points above his previous career-best, and to do that at age 32 ... it defies logic.

But so does Nowitzki. His place among the game's all-time greats -- top 10, top 40, whatever -- can be debated, but the uniqueness of his game cannot. With 22,792 points and 8,315 rebounds, he is on pace to become just the 10th NBA player in the 25,000-10,000 club. The other nine are the best of the best -- Kareem, Wilt, Karl and Moses Malone, Erving, Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes, Dan Issel and Shaquille O'Neal -- but Nowitzki would give that club something it lacks. Nobody else in the 25,000-10,000 club is also a top-50 shooter from the foul line or the 3-point arc. Nowitzki is both. He's 14th all-time at 87.7 percent from the line, and 39th all time with 1,197 career 3-pointers.

"In my opinion," Carlisle said last week, "he’s a top 10 player in NBA history because of the uniqueness of his game ..."

Sounded silly last week.

Doesn't sound so silly anymore.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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