Back in 2011, after years of heartbreak, Dirk Nowitzki walked off the court in Miami to be by himself moments after his Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title.
He had come close before, losing to the Heat in 2006 after taking a 2-0 series lead, and then being upset by Golden State in the first round in 2007 after winning 67 games in the regular season. That frustration ended with an improbable run to the title in 2011.
Those days are well in the past. Dallas hasn’t been a serious title contender in years, and now that Nowitzki is in the sunset of his 20-year career, the Mavericks are in full rebuild mode. The future of the franchise appears to be Dennis Smith Jr. The rookie guard has emerged as a budding star, and Dallas will need him when it plays at the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.
Smith and Co. will have a tough task at hand. The Mavericks lost, 107-93, at home against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night and flew straight to Denver, where the well-rested Nuggets waited. Teams constantly play back-to-back games in different cities, but Denver is one of the toughest to do it in.
Not only are opponents playing in altitude, the Nuggets have recommitted to a high-octane offense, which is meant to run teams for 48 minutes. It happened to the New York Knicks on Thursday, who allowed 130 points to Denver (25-23).
The Nuggets want to see more of the same against the Mavericks (16-33).
“We’ve definitely been in an offensive little funk lately, so it feels good to finally get out of that the last two games,” Gary Harris, who had 23 points Thursday, told reporters after the game. “We’re just trying to get back to playing how we were playing earlier in the season. Just fast. Just read-and-react and playing off each other.”
Denver’s focus on a faster pace has led to two straight wins and a spot back in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Nuggets had fallen behind the Los Angeles Clippers after losing six of eight games, but have now passed L.A. to sit in the eighth position.
Dallas has no illusions of making the playoffs this year. The Mavericks are headed for their second consecutive losing season, so building for the future is what matters. So it is inevitable that as the NBA trade deadline nears rumors persist whether Dallas will move any of its pieces.
For now, Nuggets fans should appreciate what is possibly Nowitzki’s last trip to Denver. He has tormented and entertained fans with his play over the years with his one-legged, fadeaway jumper. He has retired that signature move, and soon he may retire completely.
“I like to go more off of two legs these days,” Nowitzki told ESPN.com. “That left leg, it’s just not as explosive as it used to be.”
The Mavericks limp into Denver having lost five of their last six, including a 105-102 loss at Pepsi Center on Jan. 15. Dallas nearly rallied to win that game, but with the Nuggets’ offense starting to catch fire, it’s a tough task to do it against a team that’s found its rhythm on that end.