Dirk Nowitzki’s Return Helps Mavericks Return to Ranks of NBA Title Contenders

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It wasn’t long ago that the Dallas Mavericks were considered a leading contender for an NBA championship this spring. They were 24-5 on Dec. 27 — they beat Orlando their last game before Christmas and Oklahoma City their first game after, earning themselves the second-best record in the NBA in convincing fashion. They were only 1 1/2 games off of San Antonio’s world-beating pace.

But that was before Dirk Nowitzki went down, spraining his right knee and throwing a wrench in not only his own MVP chances, but in the Mavs’ hopes of securing a top Western Conference playoff seed.

The Mavs went 2-7 in their superstar’s seven-game absence, including a four game losing streak.

But Nowitzki is returning on Saturday night in Memphis, completing a speedy recovery from a scary injury. A healthy Nowitzki returns Dallas’ chance of contending for a title in 2011.

There are a lot of reasons to count the Mavs out this season. Caron Butler is out for the year with his own knee ailment, which will seriously hurt the Mavs’ perimeter game offensively. Various other small health problems have gnawed away at them, as well. And the losing skid without Dirk, including three straight double-digit losses this week, has exposed the shallowness of a Mavs team that may lack a legitimate second option.

But with Nowitzki back, you can forget all the doubts. When he’s healthy, the lanky German is one of the best players on the planet, and he will silence all the unrest and return the Mavs to contention.

Dirk is rejuvenated this season, hitting shots at a remarkable rate (54.5 percent, 40.3 from 3-point range) and rising to the occasion late in games. He’s an incredible closer — even when opposing defenses know he’s getting the ball and throw countless bodies at him, he still finds a way to grind out his points.

The Mavs have added Tyson Chandler this season, giving them a deeper crop of big men than they’ve had in years.

They’ve got a newfound commitment to playing defense, which is actually winning them games.

The Mavs may not have Butler, but they went 32-20 last season before his arrival at the trading deadline, and they’ve only improved since then, even without the star shooting guard around.

This Dallas team went to the Finals in 2006, and if not for a few questionable calls and an epic scoring spree from Dwyane Wade, they may have won a title then. There’s no reason this year’s Mavs team can’t be just as good, if not better. Now with their star back in the mix, you can’t count them out.

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