Despite a sub-par shooting night, Dirk Nowitzki passed Larry Bird on the NBA’s scoring list. Meanwhile, Nowitzki’s teammates picked up the slack to help the Mavericks sweep their back-to-back in Florida with a win in Orlando, writes Earl K. Sneed.
ORLANDO — Dallas Mavericks fans have witnessed plenty of heroic nights and historic accolades for Dirk Nowitzki during his 13-year career. And though the fans back in Dallas had to watch from afar, the Mavericks’ caped crusader added another accomplishment to his list of superman-like feats Tuesday night.
The Mavericks (23-5) took the court on the second night of a back-to-back looking to help their go-to player reach yet another career milestone. Nowitzki entered the team’s matchup with the Orlando Magic just 11 points away from passing Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird for 25th on the NBA’s career-scoring list.
And as Nowitzki finished a lackluster shooting night with 17 points to pass Bird and bring his career points total to 21,798, his team continued its scorching-hot play. The Mavericks left the new Amway Center with a 105-99 win for their 16th victory in the last 17 games and the fourth straight notch in the W column overall, completing a 2-0 trip through the state of Florida after Monday night’s 98-96 win in Miami.
“It’s obviously an unbelievable accomplishment to be a top 25 scorer in an amazing league with an amazing history and amazing players,” Nowitzki said after the win. “So, it’s an unbelievable accomplishment. But it’s gonna mean more to me once my career is done.
“In 15 or 20 years, I’ll look back at the stuff I’ve accomplished, and I think I’ll be more proud,” Nowitzki added. “But as of now, I’m still chasing my dream and I’m still trying to bring a championship to Dallas…That’s where my focus is now.”
While Nowitzki downplayed his cemented place in history, a former teammate of Bird said that one of the league’s greatest scorers of all time couldn’t resist taking out the time to recognize the accomplishment.
“I just got a text message from Larry right as the game ended saying to congratulate Dirk and that he’s always been a huge fan,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the win. “They’ve had a chance to spend some time together, so I’m sure he’s gonna text Dirk. And I’m sure that will be very meaningful to Dirk.”
Nowitzki later confirmed that Bird did send a congratulatory message his way after the game, but he wouldn’t elaborate on what the former great sharpshooter had to say.
But before Nowitzki could celebrate his individual accomplishment, he and his teammates had to take the court to contend with a new-look Magic squad. And though much has been made over Orlando’s recent acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark, Carlisle knew that the key to beating the Magic (16-12) would be stopping center Dwight Howard.
So, Carlisle bolstered the middle of his team’s lineup by activating fourth-string center Alexis Ajinca to play behind starter Tyson Chandler and backups Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi, giving the Mavericks four 7-footers to contain Howard in the painted area. Forward Steve Novak was inactive to make room for Ajinca.
Once the game tipped off, Nowitzki got his touches within the flow of the Mavericks’ offense early on, scoring eight points in the opening period and doing much of his damage as his teammates around him scored as well to open up a 27-21 edge at the end of one. The Mavs led by as much as 12 in the period.
It didn’t take long for the Magic’s outside shooting to catch fire in the early minutes of the second quarter, as the home team rallied to take the lead. Using a 12-2 run, the Magic attempted to take control of the game by firing from the perimeter. But three consecutive two-handed slams by Chandler put a halt to the Magic’s momentum. And with the Mavericks also finding success from behind the 3-point arc, sparking a 10-0 spurt, it didn’t take long for them to recapture a comfortable margin.
Despite a scoreless second quarter from Nowitzki, the Mavs headed into the halftime break in front, 49-45.
The Mavs took the slight edge at the midway point behind a 12-point first half from forward Caron Butler to combat Howard’s 10 points at the other end. Meanwhile, all five of the Mavericks’ starters scored at least six points in the first two quarters, as the Mavs connected on close to 49 percent of their shots compared to less than 46 percent from the Magic.
“The balance was really key for us tonight. Dirk is as great a player as there is in this league right now. But for us to do what we want to do and go where we want to go, we’ve got to have four or five guys in double figures and give him a lot of support. We had a lot of guys involved tonight,” Carlisle explained.
Both teams continued to find success from the 3-point line in third quarter, as the game developed into an old-fashioned shootout. And with Nowitzki scoreless for another quarter, Butler and Chandler carried the Mavericks’ offense, while point guard Jason Kidd directed things. The trio lifted the Mavericks to a 76-72 edge heading into the fourth period.
Whatever struggles Nowitzki had experienced leading up to the final quarter quickly went away at the 11:18-mark of the fourth, as sixth man Jason Terry found the 7-footer on the Mavericks’ first possession of the period for a 3-pointer to supplant Bird on the scoring chart.
“He [Nowitzki] is one of the greatest players to ever play this game, obviously,” Terry said of his teammate. “The greatest European, hands down. I’ve been with him seven years, and I’m amazed by what he does out there. His work ethic has put him up there with the greats, and he will be a Hall of Famer.”
With that out of the way, the Mavericks began to pull away from the Magic, with Haywood and Chandler both dominating the interior and finishing with thunderous dunks. But the Magic continued to fight back even after the Dallas advantage reached double figures. And Jason Richardson’s three with 56.6 ticks left cut the Mavs’ lead to just 97-94.
The next time down the floor, Terry immediately responded, raining in a jumper with 39.1 seconds remaining. And after Shawn Marion’s free throws widened the lead, Richardson again swished in a triple with 24.3 seconds left.
A perfect 2-for-2 trip at the line by Nowitzki kept the Magic at bay. And again the ball went to Richardson, but this time he misfired, and Terry grabbed the rebound which led to two more free throws. Then, in the game’s final possession, J.J. Redick missed from behind the arc, and DeShawn Stevenson grabbed the last rebound, dribbling the clock out for the Mavericks’ fourth straight win.
“They had some really good stretches out there, but we were able to hold up over a 48-minute game. So, that was good news for us,” Carlisle said.
Butler’s 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 4-of-6 from long range led six Mavericks in double figures, picking up the slack for Nowitzki’s 4-of-13 night. Chandler dunked his way to 16 points on a perfect 7-for-7 day at the office, while Kidd and Terry tallied up 13 points apiece. Meanwhile, Stevenson recorded 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and 3-of-4 from behind the arc.
“It says a lot about us,” Chandler said. “On any given night anybody can lead us. Dirk is obviously gonna lead us majority of the time in scoring, but our second, third and fourth options can come from anybody.”
And most of the balanced scoring came off Kidd’s direction, as the future Hall-of-Fame point guard dished out 12 assists.
“It just shows the depth of this team and the talent. I think the biggest thing is we believe in one another,” Kidd said. “No matter who’s taking the shots in the first quarter or who’s taking the shots in the fourth quarter, we’re just trying to make the right plays on the offensive end.”
Meanwhile, Howard posted a monster 26-point, 23-rebound night in a losing effort. And the Mavericks overcame the Magic’s 40-38 edge in rebounding and 42-30 advantage in points in the paint. The Mavs did end the night outshooting the Magic, 50 percent to 44 percent, while also connecting on 12-of-26 from behind the 3-point line compared to Orlando’s 11-of-29 from long distance.
Now, the Mavericks will take a break from games and the court to spend time with their friends and families over the Christmas holiday. The Mavericks return to the hardwood next Monday night, Dec. 27, when they travel for a second time to Oklahoma City to match up against the Thunder. The Mavs went into Oklahoma City Arena and came out with a 111-103 win on Nov. 24 in the first game between the two squads.
“It was an important game for us. We wanted to get momentum heading into this break, so we’re happy,” Carlisle concluded.
Note: For a second time this season, the Mavericks will head into Oklahoma City to do battle with the Thunder. Next Monday night’s Mavericks-Thunder game will tip off at 7 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest.
The Mavericks return to the American Airlines Center for a date with the Toronto Raptors. That game will tip off at 7: 30 p.m. CT. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting the American Airlines Center box office, logging on to Mavs.com or by calling 214-747-MAVS (6287).
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