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On An Emotional Return In Big D

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Statistically speaking, the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player has had better nights: 6-for-15 shooting, 18 points and 5 rebounds don't exactly comprise the stuff of legend.

But that's the great thing about basketball: It's a game about so much more than the numbers.

For at least one night in Dallas -- one that happened to coincide with one of the season's biggest games -- Dirk Nowitzki was every bit the leader and competitor his Mavericks need him to be in order for them to contend.

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Over the course of the season, the questions about Dirk Nowitzki's heart and capacity to lead have been brought forth once more by fans and media members alike.

In light of last year's stunning first-round exit, the microscope was going to be on the 2006-07 MVP all season to begin with.  That the Mavericks felt the need to trade for a new floor general and proven leader in Jason Kidd only heightened suspicions that even those on the inside were starting to believe that Nowitzki wasn't going to be the leader on a championship team.  That the team immediately ran off ten straight losses against winning teams in the wake of the Kidd trade only furthered worries about the squad, and worries about the squad tend to lead to worries about the squad's best player.

Those questions have not been completely answered, nor are they necessarily anywhere close to being dismissed.  That's because there is a long way to go and a lot of basketball to be played, and these aren't the types of questions that can be answered with one 27-minute performance in the first week of April.

But with all that said, for the duration of one evening that quickly turned festive in Dallas, those questions were thrown out the window -- and deservedly so.

Sometimes, it's all in the body language.

It started when Nowitzki -- once presumed to be out of the lineup injured for at least several more days, and listed as doubtful throughout Wednesday -- entered the building in full uniform with his teammates.

It kept going when it became clear that this wasn't just another night to him.

The usually low-key Nowitzki came to the gym fired up last night.  From the moment he got on the floor, he couldn't even so much as stand still.  He was hopping and jumping up and down throughout warm-ups, high-fiving anything that walked.  He had that look, the look of a man singularly focused on accomplishing the task at hand, no matter the cost.  Even if he couldn't do it himself, he was going to make sure he gave his teammates enough energy to make sure they could finish the job.

That's precisely what happened.

The Mavs came out running right from the opening tip against the Golden State team that eliminated them from the last year's playoffs.  Nowitzki's energy was contagious, as Jason Kidd, Josh Howard and Jason Terry in particular flew up the floor with a level of gusto this team hasn't had in months.  The Mavs jumped out to a 25-16 first-quarter lead by running lay-up lines through the Warriors' porous 'D', and they were on their way to an astounding 44 fast break points for the game.

Throughout the night, Dirk's mood never seemed to change.  He wanted this one.  He went out and produced however much he could, and then he produced some more by continuing to channel energy into his team.  He was up off the bench embracing his teammates, jumping around and generally leading his troops as Dallas cruised to a 25-point victory.

Yes, they were his troops last night.  It showed when a team that had been previously dead against quality opponents came out with a new swagger in its step right from the start tonight -- a swagger that mirrored the vibe coming from their best player in warm-ups.  It showed all night in Dirk's body language.  And it showed when he didn't shy away from playfully jabbing at his boys, telling ESPN's sideline reporter something to the effect of "We even had a Terry sighting tonight, which hasn't been the case much lately" in regards to Jason Terry's 31 points.

Focused.  Loose.  Confident.  Excited.  Leading.  Dirk Nowitzki was all those things last night.  And just healthy enough to make it all work, too. 

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