BOSTON — As reporters filed into the visiting locker room at TD Garden after the Boston Celtics claimed a 114-93 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki was sitting alone on a trainer’s table with his 40-year-old feet both stuck in a bucket of ice, his hands clasped and his head down.
It had been only a few minutes earlier that Nowitzki, playing here for the 18th and likely final time, had been serenaded with cheers by the opposing fans throughout the final minutes of Boston’s blowout victory, hoping he would give them one final moment — and, in doing so, pass Kobe Bryant for the most points ever scored in this building by a Western Conference opponent.
Instead, Nowitzki missed all 10 shots he took, and went scoreless in a game for the second time this season, and the ninth time in his career. Doing so meant Bryant remained one point ahead of him — 427-426 — and left Nowitzki wishing he could’ve provided the fans with the moment they were pining for.
“Yeah, I mean super sweet, super emotional,” Nowitzki said. “It’s sweet when not only your home fans, but the fans on the road, that appreciate what you’ve done in the last two decades. I appreciate the fans of Boston and, unfortunately, really disappointed I couldn’t even make one.
“Just real disappointing but definitely will never forget the reception and, obviously, at the end how they wanted me to break the record. I really appreciate it.”
The Celtics certainly did their best to let Nowitzki do so. After the future Hall of Famer checked out of the game early in the fourth quarter, having missed the first six shots he took — all from 3-point range — he seemed destined to have his second scoreless game in two weeks, after not having one in the 15 seasons prior.
But then, with the game out of reach, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle put Nowitzki back into the game with 2:24 remaining in order to try to get Nowitzki a basket. From that point forward, the game devolved into seemingly every person in the building– from the sellout crowd of 18,624 in the stands to the players and coaches on both teams — hoping Nowitzki would find a way to get it done.
Nowitzki wound up with the ball in his hands four times inside the final 100 seconds of the game — twice on the left block, where he has made so many shots before — and twice from behind the arc, including on the final shot of the game. Each time, the crowd rose in unison, hoping to see the ball fall through the net.
Each time, though, it was left disappointed — and Nowitzki was left smiling and shaking his head.
“I’ve rooted for the opponent to score two times in my life: Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I was sitting over there like everyone else in the building saying, ‘Go in. Go in.’ Right?
“But what a special player. Kudos to him.”
It was a moment reminiscent of when Pierce, who was taken one spot after Nowitzki by the Celtics in the 1998 NBA draft, hit a jumper in the final seconds of the fourth quarter of his final game at TD Garden two years ago. And while the fans here obviously had a far deeper connection with Pierce, given his long tenure with the franchise, it was a moment of recognition of the winding down of the career of one of the sport’s all-time greats.
By playing this season with the Mavericks — his 21st in Dallas — Nowitzki has passed Bryant for the most seasons with a single team in an NBA career. And while he hasn’t officially said his career will be ending after this season, all signs seem to be pointing to this being his final time around the league — with his re-entering the game for the final couple minutes of Friday night’s game being the latest indiciation.
And, after missing out on several places where he may not get a final chance to play again earlier in the season due to missing the first 26 games following offseason ankle surgery, Nowitzki said he was happy Boston wasn’t one of those places he missed.
“It’s unfortunate early in the season to miss some of the spots I might never play again,” he said. “Atlanta, Toronto is another great stop on the East Coast, and I wasn’t able to play there, and that was unfortunate. But these East Coast cities where we only come once a year, I’m glad I can play some.
“It’s hard not to reflect. I don’t really want to. I want to stay in the moment and compete. It takes a lot for me to go out there every night. From stretching to massages to all sorts of things that nobody sees. So it takes a lot and I want to keep doing it.”
The irony in Nowitzki’s performance Friday night was that he came into the game beginning to round into form after his lengthy layoff to start the year. After he hadn’t scored more than three points in his first five games – including that first scoreless game – Nowitzki had scored a combined 30 points in his previous four games, shooting 10-for-21 overall and 6-for-13 from 3-point range.
But it wasn’t meant to be Friday night. Instead, Nowitzki was left to think about the memories from his many trips here over the past two decades, and about his basketball life drawing one game closer to its conclusion.
“I mean, you get ready for [the end],” he said. “We all know it. Everybody’s career comes to an end. It’s not like it is sneaking up on you after 21 years. Like I said, I’m trying to enjoy it. I’m trying to enjoy my teammates. I’m trying to enjoy the grind with them, have fun on the road trips, on the bus, whether it’s the weight lifting, team meal. Just always trying to enjoy the camaraderie stuff.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys who have hung it up … and they all say two things: it’s the competition and the camaraderie in the locker room that you’re going to miss. So I am going to try to soak it all up and hopefully play some decent, efficient basketball the last couple months, and go from there.”