OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Dirk Nowitzki's age-defying wizardry has been overlooked lately because of Kobe Bryant.
While the basketball world is still buzzing about the 37-year-old Bryant's 60-point outburst against Utah in his final game, Nowitzki, two months older than Bryant, is still playing. He leads the Dallas Mavericks into their first-round Western Conference playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with Game 1 on Saturday night.
Nowitzki isn't just still playing at 37 — he's thriving. He led the Mavericks with 18.3 points per game this season. The league's No. 6 all-time scorer doesn't fire as often as in years past, but he's still dangerous.
"Physically, he would probably tell you he's not where he was five or six years ago, but he's still finding ways to be effective," 35-year-old Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "They're putting teams in really tough binds with how to guard their actions with a lot of the stuff they can do with his skill set. He's a guy I've got a ton of respect for. He's really good, and he's still doing it after all these years."
Nowitzki's shooting touch for a 7-footer poses matchup problems for most teams. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said his knowledge is just as important.
"I think any time, whether it's a Kobe Bryant or a Dirk Nowitzki, guys that have been in the NBA for a long, long time, I think the thing you can never underestimate is their ability and their experience and how many situations these guys have been in, and how they play the game mentally just as much as they play it physically," Donovan said.
Nowitzki has stood in the Thunder's way before: The Mavericks beat Oklahoma City in the 2011 Western Conference finals on their way to the NBA title. The Thunder swept the Mavericks in the first round the next year en route to the NBA Finals.
It's unclear how many more years Nowitzki will play, so Thunder forward Kevin Durant will enjoy the competition while he can.
"Dirk Nowitzki is one of my favorite players to ever play the game, so it's going to be fun playing against him," Durant said.
Here are some things to watch in the series:
Kevin Durant bounced back from last year's injury-plagued season to average 28.2 points, a career-high 8.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game this season. The four-time scoring champion reflected this week on what life was like 12 months ago while he was recovering from bone graft surgery on his right foot.
"I remember, this time last year, everybody was going home and I was by myself in here with a cast on," Durant said. "That's all I can remember."
WESTBROOK vs. BAREA
Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and Dallas point guard J.J. Barea had an altercation during their Jan. 13 game, and Westbrook was ejected. Aside from that matchup, Westbrook dominated the season series, averaging 23.7 points, 10.3 assists and 6.7 rebounds in the three full games he played. Barea, normally a backup, has played well lately after stepping in for injured starter Deron Williams. Neither will back down.
The Thunder won all four games against the Mavericks this season, and few are giving Dallas a chance in the series.
"I understand we will be a decided and heavy underdog," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's one of the things that makes this situation compelling. We look forward to the challenge."
The Mavericks played fast for much of the season, but they slowed it down late and won seven of their final nine games, never allowing more than 98 points in that stretch after allowing more than 100 in 19 of the previous 21 games. The Thunder want to push the ball — they ranked second in the league with 110.2 points per game.
"This is one of my favorite teams I've ever worked with because they had to do it the hard way," Carlisle said. "They had to do it with a pretty significant style change, some pretty major sacrifices throughout the roster. We had to grind."
Carlisle has a championship with the Mavericks and had successful stints in Detroit and Indiana before landing in Dallas. Donovan heads into his first NBA playoff series. Donovan said he's unsure what lies ahead, but he knows pressure from coaching at Florida, where he led the Gators to two national titles.
"A lot of times in college, every game's a game seven. You're dealing with that in the conference tournament, in the NCAA Tournament and sometimes, in a lot of ways, your last five, six, eight games can be like game sevens if you're trying to make the tournament," he said.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP