BOSTON — Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was motioning for his players to clear the court and TD Garden was buzzing with playoff-like intensity at the prospects of Dirk Nowitzki getting one final shot inside a building where scoring has seemingly come easy throughout his 21-year NBA career.
But scoring had not come easy on this night. Needing a mere 2 points to pass Kobe Bryant to become the Western Conference’s top career scorer at TD Garden, Nowitzki had missed — and often missed badly — on his first nine attempts. Celtics fans stood for each Dallas possession over the final two minutes and, with shades of Paul Pierce’s final game here with the Clippers, it seemed like every person in the building wanted Nowitzki to make a shot.
"I’ve rooted for the opponent to score two times in my life: Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki,” said Stevens. "I was sitting [on the bench] just like everyone else in the building saying, ‘Go in. Go in,’ right?”
Nowitzki, his tongue wagging out front of a big smile as he lumbered to one of his 3-point sweet spots, caught an inbounds pass with 1.1 seconds to go, wheeled, and fired as players on Boston’s bench spilled onto the floor in anticipation.
And then ... Clang … back iron.
Nowitzki finished 0-for-10 shooting and was scoreless over 16 minutes during Boston’s 114-93 victory. As Nowitzki shook his head in disbelief at his shot defying him and denying him Bryant’s record, a receiving line of white jerseys lined up to offer well-wishes for a player that certainly seems like he’s on a farewell tour.
Inside the Mavericks locker room, most of Nowitzki’s teammates had showered and dressed before he even pulled his feet from the ice bath they required in an orange Gatorade cooler following Friday’s game. And Nowitzki was still smarting over the misses when he engaged a horde of reporters waiting at his locker stall.
“They were trying to make me score at the end,” said Nowitzki. "On the one switch [in the post], I think it was [guard Brad] Wanamaker, he didn’t even put his hands up and I still came up real short [on a fadeaway from the blocks]. Just wasn’t my night, unfortunately. I wish I would have at least made one. That was nice of the Celtics to try to get me that record, it just wasn’t happening.”
Nowitzki was asked if Bryant might reach out to celebrate his record remaining intact.
"Aww man, I might have to come back for one more year,” cracked Nowitzki.
That seems unlikely. Which is why Nowitzki is being showered with affection everywhere the Mavericks visit. He noted how fans in Charlotte cheered “We want Dirk” for him until he waved from the bench during a visit this week. In Boston, he got a standing ovation when he first checked in and the buzz only grew each time he touched the ball.
By late in the fourth quarter, Boston fans were chanting “Dirk! Dirk! Dirk!” and booing when a teammate put up a shot instead of him.
“Super sweet, super emotional,” said Nowitzki. “It’s sweet when not only your home fans but the fans on the road 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.”
The Celtics, playing shorthanded without top All-Star candidates in Kyrie Irving (eye) and Marcus Morris (neck), built a big early lead but still had to work to separate from the Mavericks after the visitors made things interesting late in the first half.
But once the game was in hand, the game became about Nowitzki. It was also a reminder of why the Garden is the best venue in the NBA. Fans recognized the magnitude of Nowitzki’s last visit and wanted to share a moment with a player who routinely torched their team here.
Nowitzki was playing his 18th and likely final game in Boston. He entered averaging 25.1 points per game here, and his 25.2 points per game against the Celtics overall was Nowitzki’s best against any team in the NBA.
Rarely in professional sports do you see moments where opponents are genuinely rooting for their competition. Marcus Smart was practically holding teammates back with hopes of exploding in celebration if Nowitzki made one of his final shots. Jayson Tatum and Al Horford threw their hands in the air in anticipation each time Nowitzki launched a 3-pointer in the final minutes.
"Man, I wanted him to make a shot,” said Jaylen Brown. "Jesus Christ, of course, it’s going to be a sad day when Dirk steps away from the game.
"I got to spend some time with him in South Africa, in Johannesburg, [during the summer] and just as he’s a great basketball player, he’s a great person. He’s just super cool, low key and humble. He’s always joking around. When he finally steps away from this game, he gave so much to it, he’s going to be truly honored. So, it’s just super cool to be in his presence and just watch him out there.
"He’s a true legend.”
For his part, Nowitzki is in no rush to declare that this is indeed his final season. But moments like Friday night seem to make that decision for him.
"It's hard not to reflect. I don't really want to. I want to stay in the moment and compete,” said Nowitzki. "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. I enjoy it. I'll enjoy the grind for a couple more months, and then we'll go from there.”
Gordon Hayward noted how he was part of the Jazz team that Bryant played his final NBA game against back in 2016. Bryant scored 60 points that night on a staggering 50 shot attempts. There was a similar tinge of nostalgia for Hayward watching Nowitzki try to will in his shots on Friday.
"I thought that was awesome,” said Hayward. "Dirk has done so much for the game of basketball, and just happy to see him still out there. He’s such a great player, so that was pretty cool.”
Then Hayward echoed the sentiment of every single person inside TD Garden and all those watching from afar on Friday night.
Said Hayward: "I wish he would have hit one.”
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