For a third straight night, the stage was for someone else to own.
“The feeling in this arena,” Dirk Nowitzki said, “is like nowhere else.”
In what was likely Nowitzki’s final game at Madison Square Garden, the sport’s most successful international player, in his 21st NBA season, reached back for a little extra something as he scored a season-high 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting and basked in the adulation of a crowd that came to see him, just like it did to see Dwyane Wade on Sunday and James Harden last Wednesday.
While the home team tied a franchise record with its 12th straight home loss, they yielded the floor to the opponent and its star. It’s as if they, too, are accepting the notion that these games no longer matter and everyone involved just wants to get to the offseason.
“We gave into the losing tonight,” a somber David Fizdale said.
The Knicks (10-40) own the worst record in the NBA. The Novocaine for this much losing is visions of landing Duke phenom Zion Williamson, who could re-energize the building the way rookie Luka Doncic has for the Mavericks. The Mavs made an aggressive draft-night trade for Doncic similarly to how they landed Nowitzki two decades ago and the torch is being passed this season.
As Dirk looked comfortable in what is expected to be his final appearance at The Garden, Doncic looked jittery in his first game on basketball’s legendary stage. He hit just 3 of his first 12 shots, including 0-for-5 from downtown, until a one-handed desperation heave at the shot clock buzzer got him to laugh and relax.
That’s when he enjoyed watching Nowitzki make a few vintage shots that drew roars from The Garden crowd.
Though Nowitzki won’t say this is his final season, he did speak with a hint of nostalgia in his voice about playing at The Garden.
“The celebs, the vibe, the fact that the court is lit and everything else is dark,” he said at the morning shoot-around. “There is a special flair here.”
But while it’s fun for someone like him, like Wade, like Harden and, most likely, Kyrie Irving when the Celtics come on Friday for their last visit of the season, there is a growing sentiment around the NBA that what’s happening this season at The Garden is depressing. LeBron James and the Lakers will be here on St. Patrick’s Day and for the first time in a few years, you might not see him troll the fans with “King of New York” talk.
He cares too much about Fizdale to pile on at this point. The franchise needs to get Kristaps Porzingis healthy, they need to develop Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier into something, they need to get some “Frozen Envelope” fortune on May 14 and they need a star to decide someone needs to take this building back.
It’s not a matter of getting the fans back. As Nowitzki noted, that’s never an issue in this basketball city.
“The support of the fans is always there,” Nowitzki said, “no matter what their record is.”
But, you see, while the stars love coming to The Garden and showing out, if you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s more fun when they come in as the villain. Not as the main attraction.
– Lost in Dirk’s final game was a triple-double by Dennis Smith Jr., who had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists for the Mavs. Two weeks ago, he was the hot name in trade rumors when he left the team before their last road trip to the East. But with some convincing from coach Rick Carlisle, Smith Jr. returned to the team. He’s averaged 16 points per game since he’s been back and it seems, for now, any issues he had have been resolved. “You don’t realize how much you miss it until you’re actually missing it,” he said of his absence. The Mavericks were reportedly listening to offers for Smith well before he went AWOL and despite the reconciliation, there is a belief around the league that they would still be willing to trade the 2017 lottery pick for the right offer. Doncic, who, coincidentally is the reason why Smith Jr. has suddenly become expendable, hoped to make it work. “He can help us,” Doncic said.
– Kevin Knox had 17 points but was 6-of-16 from the floor and 1-of-6 from downtown. The good news is he’s putting up points again after a brief slump, but Knox continues to struggle with defense. It seems despite being named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December, the coaches around the league are seeing he may be a product of simply getting the playing time on a losing team. Knox was left off the United States roster for the Rising Stars Challenge Game at All-Star Weekend. The Knicks, despite having three rookies (Knox, Robinson and Trier) and two sophomores (Frank Ntilikina and Daymean Dotson), are not represented in the Rising Stars game. It should be noted that there were only three rookies — Trae Young, Marvin Bagley and Jaren Jackson Jr. — named to the United States roster. Knox could be an injury addition if Lonzo Ball can not go because of injury. Ntilikina made the World team roster last year as a rookie.
– Enes Kanter played for the first time in five games. Fizdale called on him in the third quarter when the Knicks “compete level” was severely lacking. Some fans in the crowd were chanting for him and as Kanter waited to check into the game at the scorer’s table, he waved his warmup in the air. He then walked to center court and kissed the Knicks logo. “If they knew the love I have for New York in my heart, they would retire my jersey,” Kanter said. “I have no problem with this organization, I have no problem with my teammates, these players, coaches or the city. From Day 1, I loved the city. From Day 1, they opened their arms, they welcomed me. I just wanted to show my love.” Kanter admitted he had some nerves and even some rust from sitting out four games with a DNP-CD and also said he’s been mentally fatigued from the off-the-court issues he’s dealt with this season regarding his political controversy with his home country, Turkey. Kanter also wasn’t sure if that would be the last time he would play at The Garden as a Knick. In fact, he left the locker room after speaking to reporters saying “Good-bye New York.”
– We talked about improved defense in the previous blog, let’s point now to a concerning trend on offense. Over the last four games, the Knicks have failed to score 100 points. That’s their longest streak of failing to reach 100 points for the season. Only four other teams have had longer streaks this season: Cleveland (5: Nov. 26-Dec. 3), Chicago (7: Dec. 8-21), Orlando (7: Dec. 7-23) and Memphis (8: Dec. 8-21).