Why Dirk Nowitzki remains so special, even on a night when he doesn't score

BOSTON — The TD Garden crowd was in full lather, chanting “We love Dirk!” and “Dirk, Dirk, Dirk!”, wanting to be rewarded with one Dirk Nowitzki field goal as the final seconds ticked away in an easy 114-93 Boston Celtics win Friday night.

Not one more.

Just one.

Even the stoic Rick Carlisle walked down to the scorer’s table, looking up into the crowd and motioned for them to stand, to cheer for a player who never played for them nor had any special connection to Boston.

“I’ve rooted for the opponent to score two times in my life: Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Pierce was able to give the Boston faithful one last big cheer as a Los Angeles Clipper, hitting a triple on a Sunday afternoon to close his career in 2017. The 40-year-old Nowitzki had no such luck, going scoreless in 16 minutes and missing all 10 of his shot attempts.

One basket would’ve put him ahead of Kobe Bryant for highest scoring average at TD Garden, and Nowitzki joked Bryant would’ve come out of retirement to best him one more time.

Dirk Nowitzki walks off the court Friday night in Boston. (Getty)
Dirk Nowitzki walks off the court Friday night in Boston. (Getty)

“They were trying to make me score. On the one switch, [Celtics guard Brad] Wanamaker didn’t even put his hands up, and I still came up really short. It wasn’t my night unfortunately,” Nowitzki said. “I had zero touch.”

In fact, Nowitzki’s quickest move might’ve been when rookie sensation Luka Doncic’s reverse-pivoting 3-pointer beat the buzzer before the half, with Nowitzki hopping off the bench in celebration.

But seeing him soak his feet in ice for 10 minutes before gingerly walking to meet the media proved there was a price to pay for even the most minute of movements.

“It takes a lot for me to go out there every night from stretching to massages to all sorts of things nobody sees,” Nowitzki said. “I’m gonna keep doing it and enjoying the grind and go from there.”

Staying in the moment while being appreciative of a retirement tour he hasn’t exactly initiated is a tough balance, especially for Eastern cities. The standing ovation he received upon getting off the bench prompted a wave to the crowd. Even though he’s aware of his stature and accomplishments during his 20-plus-year run, he still seems sheepish with the attention.

“There’s great cities on the road where you play and you know it’s a sports town and the night before you step out, everybody knows you wherever you go,” he said. “That’s Chicago, New York, Boston. I always enjoy those moments. They know the game and appreciate the game.

“Super sweet, super emotional. It’s sweet, when not only your home fans but the road fans appreciate what you’ve done in the last two decades.”

The game has evolved so much since Nowitzki entered the NBA in 1998, and Nowitzki was an agent of change. A bruising, super-physical style of game that prioritized playing as close to the basket as possible evolved into a golden era of versatile, physical four-men who were starting to step away from the basket.

Karl Malone and Charles Barkley were no longer in their primes by that point, but they were still the mold. Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace were changing the paradigm for the new wave — and then Nowitzki came with a completely different flavor for which the league was not quite ready.

In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, teams took an average of 13.2 3-pointers per game. This season, no team is taking fewer than 22 triples per game and in some cases — ahem, Mr. Harden — players will fire up 15 triples in a half.

Nobody blinks anymore.

As critical as Stephen Curry is to the way today’s game is played, some of the groundwork was laid by the sweet-shooting German with the George Jefferson walk.

“When I first came into the league, there were big, physical fours and fives,” Nowitzki said. “Now it’s changed. Everybody can shoot, shoot 10 or 15 feet behind the line. It’s incredible to watch. The speed of the game, the athleticism, everything’s come a long way.”

And within the extremes, Nowitzki found a way to make his own mark — elevating a Mavericks franchise that wasn’t known for much more than being a weigh station or a laughingstock.

He seemed to take his greatest triumphs with the same stride in which he took his lumps — the 2007 MVP award after his 67-win team was upset by eighth-seeded Golden State, a year after the Mavs blew a 2-0 lead (minutes away from 3-0) in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.

But he persevered with the same franchise and finally received the ultimate redemption when he led the Mavs to an unexpected 2011 Finals win over the Heat, right as the league was truly beginning to employ the pace-and-space strategy he always thrived in.

“It’s gotten more faster, more skilled,” Nowitzki said. “Nowadays anybody can back up and shoot a three.”

But not everybody can author an ending of his own choosing. He’s handing off the franchise to Doncic, another foreign sensation who’s making Dallas fall in love with him.

And after watching his dear friend Steve Nash struggle through the final stages of his career because of injury, Nowitzki sounds appreciative that he can have the oh-fer nights, simply because he’s available to play.

It’s a reason he opted for ankle surgery in April, but the recovery hit a snag when his tendon got inflamed and delayed his debut this season.

“You wanna go out playing. But this year was super frustrating,” Nowitzki said.

Still optimistic about playing more efficient basketball with the time he has left, there’s still a competitor who wants to perform even as the sand in his hourglass evaporates.

“It’s not like it’s sneaking up on you. I know it’s coming to an end,” he said.

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