Final: Mavs 114, Knicks 90

  • There are many special places in the NBA, and Madison Square Garden might top that list. The arena seems to be a living, breathing entity, with a certain aura and buzz all to its own. This was to be Luka Dončić’s first appearance in the Garden, and it is possibly Dirk Nowitzki’s last, as well. Hip-hop superstar J. Cole made it a point to sit courtside to see Dennis Smith Jr. in his second career contest in the building. Games here just mean more, and everybody knows it.

    All eyes were on Dončić, the man who received the loudest round of applause during starting lineup intros, from the opening tip. More than 60 Slovenian fans came, many wearing their country’s flag around their shoulders and all of them oohing, ahhing, and cheering proudly any time he made a play. Dončić’s photo was prominently displayed on the walls outside the arena in the hours leading up to tipoff. He was who the people came to see, and he hoped to deliver a performance that lived up not only to their anticipation but also to the building’s majesty. He didn’t quite achieve it, at least not in the first half anyway, but one man who did live up to the billing was Wesley Matthews, who drained five 3-pointers in the first half alone, tying for his second-most in a game all season. His final shot of the half, a swish to beat the second-quarter buzzer, gave Dallas a 55-47 lead and its first real breathing room since 21-13 midway through the first.

    Dončić awoke in the second half, handing out a flurry of fancy passes in the third and fourth quarters as the Mavericks opened up an insurmountable lead, and he recovered from a 3-of-12 start from the field to score a respectable 16 points to go along with his eight boards and five assists in just under 29 minutes. (We’re already to the point in his career when we call a 16-8-5 line “respectable.”)

    There were other magical moments in the evening, and we will get to them soon, but first I just want to plead to you that if you have not seen a game at Madison Square Garden, I would wholeheartedly recommend making the journey to basketball’s Mecca as soon as you can, whether or not the night’s activities involve the Mavericks. They call it the most famous arena in sports, and rightfully so.

  • Dončić dazzled in the second half of the game, but if the first half belonged to anyone – at least aside from Wesley Matthews – it was Dirk Nowitzki. The 21-year-vet has received rousing ovations at many arenas along the circuit this season, including and especially in Boston, but tonight the German matched the crowd’s enthusiasm with a performance worthy of its awe. He scored nine points in a four-minute span in the second quarter, briefly staking his claim as the game’s top scorer, before checking out a few minutes later. Upon reentry in the second half, he hit one more, stroking a 3-pointer for Dennis Smith Jr.’s career-high 15th assist to reach a season-high 14 points. The Garden erupted. Even J. Cole was on his feet. This was a moment everyone appreciated, and a night to remember. It was one of those we will look back on for a long time. I don’t know how many more games we will have the chance to see Dirk Nowitzki play. Maybe it’s 114, or 32, or maybe it’s even less. But I am happy that in this game, in this place, he put on the type of scoring display that would draw an ovation from a crowd no matter who was responsible for it. On this night, he wasn’t 40 years old. He was a legend.

  • Smith provided the primetime stat line of the night, notching his second career triple-double by tallying 13 points, a career-high 15 assists, and 10 rebounds. For much of the second quarter and even into the third, he created nearly everything for his team, whether it was via a fast break he frequently started himself off a rebound, or within the halfcourt. Shortly before halftime, he linked up with Dorian Finney-Smith on consecutive possessions, first with an alley-oop lob and then with a nice pass as Finney-Smith dove to the rim.

    Smith was relentless, and while on his best nights in his 101-game career he’s typically taken over games through scoring, tonight was one of the first times we’ve seen him completely control a contest with the pass. He has the potential to be a consistent, destructive force when he drives, and this game was an impressive demonstration of the type of quality player he can soon become. Smith became one of just two Mavericks with a 15-assist game since the days of Jason Kidd, and his triple-double following Dončić’s on Sunday night represented the first time in franchise history that two unique players recorded triple-doubles in back-to-back games. Jason Kidd and Antoine Walker each did it themselves, but never before have two different players achieved the feat. Rick Carlisle summed up his reaction in succinct, clear fashion: “It means they can play together, if you ask me.”

  • Because free throws have been a big storyline lately, this is worth mentioning: The Mavericks made 15 3-pointers; they attempted just 11 free throws. I don’t know that I have ever seen anything like that before. Now, Dallas did attempt 38 long-balls, but the club scored 50 points in the paint on 35 attempts. It’s not like no one was driving. But many of those looks at the rim were fairly uncontested, especially in the second half. I’m not sure how many more they could have earned, had more calls gone their way. Generally, this was just a clean game, with only 34 fouls called. The Mavericks shoot a ton of free throws as a team, so we could see another 30 or 40 attempts on Thursday night in Detroit. This was just one of those rare games. And, while we’re here, they made nine of them, good for 81.8 percent.

    What’s Next

    The Mavs (23-27) remain are in frigid Detroit for the second leg of a back-to-back. Tipoff is at 6 p.m.

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