Throughout the regular season, coach Avery Johnson was reluctant to address Dirk Nowitzki's chances of being named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, an award in which he would finish third behind Phoenix's Steve Nash and Cleveland's LeBron James.
During the playoffs, Johnson has talked night after night of Dirk having "an MVP-type game."
If he has one left in him, he needs to display it tonight in the AT&T Center. Nowitzki has transformed himself in his eighth season. He is a different player than he was a year ago. He is a far, far more efficient playoff performer, a far more determined competitor than he was a year ago. None of it's going to matter unless the Mavericks get the job done tonight.
Nowitzki has advanced his reputation around the league, moving in the direction of two-time MVP Tim Duncan. It's not there yet. And if his team loses and Duncan outplays him, then skeptics again will have their day questioning whether the Mavericks can win building a team around Nowitzki.
Nowitzki knows that with a Game 7 looming, it's all or nothing for his team, for himself, for everyone.
"It doesn't matter what's been said, what's been written," he said after the Mavericks' practice Sunday. "What's happened in this series doesn't matter. The pressure is equal on both teams. It's going to be an awesome game."
Nowitzki needs to have an awesome game from start to finish. The key for him in this series is the finish.
In all three Mavericks losses to San Antonio, Nowitzki has had the ball in his hands with about seven seconds to go. He has had opportunities to tie with a two-pointer (Game 1), win with a two-pointer (Game 5) and tie with a 3-pointer (Game 6). He has not managed to get the ball to the rim on any of those three occasions.
In the opener, well guarded by Bruce Bowen, Nowitzki threw an off-target pass that Jerry Stackhouse managed to retrieve. Stackhouse threw up a 3-point air ball.
In Game 5, Nowitzki faked Bowen into the air but didn't get the jump shot off quick enough, and Bowen made a great recovery to pin the shot and create a tie ball. Even after that, Nowitzki caught Jason Terry's air ball but didn't think he had enough time to come down with it and put it back up.
He didn't get off much of a shot, and the buzzer sounded.
In Game 6, Nowitzki got the ball in a bad position, deep in the corner where Michael Finley covered him, and he tossed up an air ball.
None of those were really great scoring chances, although the opportunity was there in Game 5.
But if Nowitzki is to do for his team what Duncan has done so many times for the three-time champions, he has to lead Dallas to victory tonight.
If Nowitzki is to move into the discussion of MVP candidates year after year, joining Nash and James and Miami's Dwyane Wade and perhaps Duncan for another season or two, he has to be the guy who elevates his play and helps the Mavericks advance.
He's doing everything you would expect a superstar to do.
It's just that he can't afford not to deliver when opportunity knocks this time.