Afterward, amidst chaos that was supposed to be confetti, his team lost all composure. Josh Howard berated a referee and damaged a camera. Owner Mark Cuban shoved a cameraman's arm and hurled an insult through Martin's mother.

Nowitzki? He calmly, solemnly walked off the floor with something much more precious than points and rebounds: dignity.

"I think this is about as tough of a loss as I've been a part of in my 11 years in the league," he said.

"It was a tough week for me and my family, but I stuck with it."

As the buzzards circled, something magically mundane occurred. Besieged by heartache and a 3-0 deficit that no NBA team has ever lived to tell about, Nowitzki showed up for work. The player chastised for being "soft" and pegged as the choke artist who authored the NBA's biggest Finals meltdown ('06 against the Heat) and biggest upset loss ('07 against the Warriors) went out and took an eraser to his critics' chalkboard.

In a memorable Game 4, Nowitzki was all things for his head coach and former Boston Celtic, Rick Carlisle. He was Larry Bird, raining jumpers and swishing free throws. He was Kevin McHale, dizzying defenders with multiple fakes and pivots in the post. And he was Bill Russell, rebounding, defending and, ultimately, winning.

People who say the Mavericks can't win a championship with Nowitzki weren't at AAC on May 11, 2009.

"The great ones, they somehow find the will to do it, and they get it done," Carlisle said afterward, beaming. "You know, he's one of the great ones."

The Mavs may be aging and unathletic and ill-prepared for the future, but at this point—whether rejoicing or rebuilding—it's impossible to imagine this franchise without Nowitzki. Because even at the end of the worst week of his life, he left AAC with a team on his back and a smile on his face.

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