Dirk Nowitzki's vintage night not enough for Mavs

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DALLAS -- There's no such thing as a moral victory for an all-time great whose honors include an MVP, a Finals MVP and 13 All-Star appearances.

So Dirk Nowitzki certainly wasn't puffing out his chest with pride after the 36-year-old's spectacular performance in Friday night's Game 3. It's not in Nowitzki's nature to take pride in his 34 points on 10-of-19 shooting or his eight rebounds or his four assists.

Not when the only numbers that really mattered were so heartbreaking: Houston Rockets 130, Dallas Mavericks 128.

"It ranks up there as the toughest playoff losses I've had in my long playoff career," said the 17-year veteran Nowitzki after the Rockets pushed Dallas to the brink of elimination. "This is definitely up there."

Hard as it might have been to swallow, Mavs fans should savor this night. You never know when it will be the last time to see Nowitzki perform like a legend on a playoff stage.

If folks who follow the Mavs the last four years have learned anything, it's how precious playoff opportunities are during Dirk's golden years. Since hanging the 2011 championship banner in the American Airlines Center rafters, Dallas is 3-11 in the playoffs. As deep as the West is, just punching your playoff ticket is tough, much less doing any damage in the postseason.

It has been a long, hard season for the face of the franchise, who will have a statue outside of the American Airlines Center in the not-too-distant future. There have been many nights in which Nowitzki looked every bit his age, including the Mavs' Game 2 loss in Houston, when he was 3-of-14 from the field and got picked on repeatedly by the Rockets on the other end of the floor.

As much as ever, the Mavs needed greatness from the big German in Game 3, coming in the aftermath of a crazy few days, when the point guard Dallas acquired in a blockbuster trade basically quit and the small forward the Mavs signed to a $46 million deal last summer was forced to the sideline for the rest of the playoffs and perhaps much longer by a legitimate injury.

"We needed his leadership more than ever tonight. He came out and stepped up to the plate, especially late," Dallas guard Devin Harris said. "I'm just heartbroken that we couldn't get a win for him, especially with the effort that he put out there tonight."

Dirk, one of the four players in NBA history with postseason averages of at least 25 points and 10 rebounds, dug deep and delivered with a vintage performance.

"Hey, it's the great Nowitzki, man," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He's unbelievable, just unbelievable -- unbelievable heart, unbelievable everything. He kept us in it."

Folks used to be able to take these kind of nights from Nowitzki for granted. After all, he is the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history, a matchup nightmare who revolutionized offensive basketball en route to the seventh spot on the league's all-time scoring list.

The sad truth, however, is that Nowitzki is not what he used to be. He's still fighting Father Time with all his might, but that undefeated opponent is winning more and more rounds these days. This was his first 30-plus-point performance, something he did for years on pretty much a weekly basis, in the calendar year of 2015.

His body, with more than 50,000 NBA minutes logged, doesn't always cooperate. But Dirk's desire, the competitiveness that was so long overlooked by fools who wanted to slap the soft Euro stereotype on him, remains the same.

The fourth quarter served as firm evidence of that. With the Mavs' season basically on the line, Nowitzki played one of his best stretches in a long time, scoring 16 points and grabbing five rebounds while not resting a single second in the final frame.

"Dirk is a warrior," said Tyson Chandler, who won the 2011 title alongside Nowitzki, a playoff run that eliminated any doubt that Dirk deserved to be considered among the best to ever play the game. "He's a winner, and he's always going to go out there and compete. He put us in a position to win the game, to go after it."

The Mavs indeed had a chance to win the game and make this a real series in the final seconds Friday night, or at least send the game into overtime.

For so long, there would have been no question that the ball would end up in Nowitzki's hands as the clock ticked down. He would have had a chance to add to his long list of heroic playoff moments, such as the and-1 layup to send Game 7 into overtime during the 2006 West semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs and the two game-winners he hit during the 2011 Finals.

But times have changed in Dallas. At this advanced age, Nowitzki can no longer create his own shot as consistently as he did for the majority of his phenomenal career. Over the last couple of years, Nowitzki has willingly given up the closer role to shooting guard Monta Ellis, who this season became the first player other than Dirk to lead Dallas in scoring in 14 years.

So, with the game and Dallas' season on the line with 6.7 seconds remaining, Carlisle didn't call Nowitzki's number. He called for a dribble-handoff play in which Nowitzki gave the ball to Ellis.

Ellis, who had a spectacular offensive performance of his own with career playoff highs of 34 points and nine assists, had scored on the same play call the previous possession, turning the corner on Rockets power forward Josh Smith after a switch and hitting a teardrop off the glass.

The Rockets were ready for the play again, though. Smith stayed in front of Ellis, who stumbled before launching an off-balance, 20-foot jumper that crashed off the glass, way right of the rim, as the buzzer sounded.

"There's a million things afterwards that go through your mind, what you could have done different,” Nowitzki said when asked if he wanted the ball on the final possession. "I don't allow to question myself or the coach. Monta has been the guy for us these last two years. He just scored on that play with a great drive. I think we live with his results the last two years with being our clutch guy."

The Mavs gladly lived with the big German as their clutch guy for a generation. On this night, when Nowitzki tapped into his greatness once again, it's a shame he didn't get the chance to hit a playoff game's biggest shot, perhaps for the final time of his Hall of Fame career.