DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki has reclaimed the No. 6 spot on the NBA's all-time scoring list, passing Wilt Chamberlain on Monday night in what will probably be the final major milestone of his legendary career.
Nowitzki, the longtime face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise who is playing his 21st and likely final season, spent a few years as the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history before LeBron James passed him earlier this season. Nowitzki entered Monday night's game against the New Orleans Pelicans needing four points to pass Chamberlain, who scored 31,419 points in his Hall of Fame career, and accomplished the feat by swishing his first two shots of the night.
"The 'Big Dipper,' huh? It's amazing," said Nowitzki, who finished with eight points in 12 minutes in the Mavs' 129-125 loss, pushing his career total to 31,424 points. "It's been a long time coming this season, knowing before the year it was only 200-something points [away]. Then there were times when I thought I'm not going to make it, the way the season went with the injury. Coming off the injury was just super, super slow. But the last few weeks felt better, and I've been playing better, and the team was obviously looking for me and telling me to shoot.
"I'm glad it's over with now."
The sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center buzzed with anticipation, with most of the fans on their feet, after Nowitzki knocked down a catch-and-shoot midrange jumper on his first touch of the night to pull within one point of Chamberlain.
A few possessions later, Mavs rookie star Luka Doncic delivered the ball to Nowitzki just above the free throw line, one of Nowitzki's favorite spots throughout his career. He pivoted to face the basket and drilled a 20-foot fadeaway -- off two feet, not the one-footer the 40-year-old German made famous in his prime -- over Pelicans forward Kenrich Williams with 8:35 remaining in the first quarter.
"I just took my time and faced him up like I've done a million times and just tried to shoot over him," said Nowitzki, who made a run at Chamberlain's mark during Saturday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 10-point flurry early in the fourth quarter before missing his final five shots. "It went in, and I was happy. The other night, I couldn't buy one down the stretch, so it was good to just get it over with in the first two shots."
The crowd expressed its appreciation of Nowitzki with two standing ovations -- one coming during the first stoppage in play after he passed Chamberlain and the other after a video showing all his career scoring milestones was played during the next timeout.
"That's really a monumental, historical accomplishment," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of Nowitzki's passing Chamberlain. "Not many people on the outside know the kind of sacrifices he's made just to be on the floor to accomplish something like this. Just another credit to how he's approached his entire career."
Abdul-Jabbar is now the only 7-footer to score more career points than Nowitzki, who revolutionized the game as a big man whose jump shot was his most dangerous weapon. That was in stark contrast to commanding 7-footers of the past who dominated the paint and on post-ups, particularly Chamberlain, whose combination of size and athleticism was ahead of his time.
"He dominated his era like nobody else has dominated in his era," Nowitzki said of Chamberlain. "It was obviously a little bit before my time, but everybody knows about Wilt and what he's done -- how athletic he was, how big he was, how he could jump at that height that he was. He was just a freak of nature and unguardable in that era. He only played, what, 13 or 14 years, and he's still up there with the best. If he had played a couple more years, he'd be No. 1 or 2. So that's how dominant he was."
Nowitzki has made 1,960 3-pointers in his career, which ranks 11th in NBA history and is by far the most by a 7-footer. The other 7-footers who rank among the NBA's top 10 all-time scorers combined to make a total of two 3-pointers -- one apiece by Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, with Chamberlain playing his entire career before the 3-point line existed.
The game changed in part because of Nowitzki's success as a perimeter threat. Before his arrival in the NBA, Arvydas Sabonis was the only 7-footer to make at least 25 3s in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That modest milestone has since been hit by 30 7-footers, including Nowitzki, who has done it in each of the past 20 seasons, hitting more than 100 3s nine times. There are 17 7-footers who have made at least 25 3s already this season.
"I think I came in at the right time where the game was changing a little bit," Nowitzki said. "The game was changing, and the league wanted a little more scoring, wanted a little more moving. In the '90s, there was a lot of weightlifting with [power forwards and centers] and a lot of hard fouling going on. I think the league wanted a change, and I came in at the right time.
"Now, basically anybody can shoot. It's been fun to watch the evolution of the league in the last 20 years."
Nowitzki also developed a niche as the master of the midrange. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 5,668 points scored from the midrange rank as the most in the NBA in that area during the course of his career.
Many of those midrange shots were one-legged fadeaway jumpers, the iconic shot Nowitzki developed midway through his career, launching them both off the dribble on isolations and out of post-ups. Unlike Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, a similarly unblockable shot, many of Nowitzki's counterparts copied his go-to move.
Nowitzki reiterated Monday night that he won't decide whether to retire until after the season, but this is widely expected to be his final season, as he has been given an unofficial farewell tour around the league. It's been a difficult season for Nowitzki, who missed the first 26 games after suffering a setback in his recovery from ankle surgery last spring and is averaging 6.0 points per game.
It's a near certainty Nowitzki will not climb any more rungs on the all-time scoring list, with Michael Jordan a spot above him with 32,292 points. The top four are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (33,643) and James (32,439).
"It's surreal at times to be up there with some of these names," Nowitzki said. "But I'm going to really let that all soak in once my career is over and then show my kids."