The Miami Heat were officially eliminated from the playoff race Tuesday, by a result out of their control: the Detroit Pistons rallied from 22 down to beat the Memphis Grizzlies.
Disappointing as that must have been for a team that stumbled down the stretch, the result wasn't nearly enough to overshadow a far more important occasion: The final regular-season home game for franchise icon Dwyane Wade, who will retire after 14-plus seasons with the Heat, and 16 overall.
A similar scene unfolded roughly 1,100 miles away in Dallas, where the Mavericks and their faithful bid farewell to Dirk Nowitzki in what he announced would also be his final regular-season home contest following their 120-109 victory over the Suns.
Key figures in two Finals clashes, in 2006 and 2011, the two giants entered Tuesday's action having combined for:
- Nearly 55,000 career points
- Nearly 2,600 career games
- 28 playoff appearances
- At least 32 major team records
- 27 All-Star selections
- 20 All-NBA selections
- Two Finals MVP awards (one apiece)
- Seven Finals appearances
- Four championships (one for Nowitzki, three for Wade)
And even then, with resumes polished enough to earn first-ballot entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, numbers and accolades don't come close to capturing the devotion both players earned in their respective cities, not only with superlative play, but also the manner in which they embraced their roles as team talismans.
That affection was in full force at both arenas -- in Nowitzki's case, as soon as he entered the building with a gauntlet of team and stadium employees lining up to lavish the 21-year veteran with high fives and cheers.
Nowitzki was clearly up for the moment as he scored the Mavericks' first 10 points against Phoenix -- fittingly, on two 3-pointers and a pair of signature turnaround jumpers -- and 30 overall, to more than quadruple his season scoring average. (The old man even dunked in warmups!)
The Mavericks treated him to a lengthy postgame ceremony, which featured appearances from fellow legends like Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, each of whom Nowitzki idolized during his youth in Germany. Nowitzki followed that up by announcing, after a season of speculation, that he will indeed be retiring after tonight's finale in San Antonio.
"As you might expect, this was my last home game," Nowitzki said, as chants of "Thank you, Dirk!" rained down from the stands. "This is obviously super, super emotional. I put you guys on a hell of a ride, with a lot of ups and downs, but you always supported me, so I appreciate it. I'm really speechless. I left Germany over 20 years ago, and I became a Texan."
Said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, "There are no words I could possibly say to describe how I feel about what you've meant to this organization. But I promise you, everything you taught us will continue. I promise you that you have a job for life, I don't care what you do. I promise you, we will retire your number. And I promise you, we will get the biggest, most bad-ass statue ever and we'll put it right in front of the arena. There will never be anybody like you, Dirty."
The Heat went all-out with their own festivities at AmericanAirlines Arena. That included an emotional career retrospective; in-game tributes from the likes of former president -- and fellow Chicago native -- Barack Obama, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Wade's wife, the actor Gabrielle Union, as well as an introduction video narrated by his son, Zaire.
And just like Nowitzki did in Dallas, and as the two legends have done so many times over the years, Wade rose to the occasion as well. He dunked for Miami's first points of the game, and finished with 30; the total marked his second-highest output in 71 appearances this season.
That led to further celebration after the game as Wade presented each of teammates -- all of whom he individually thanked during his pregame address -- with autographed No. 3 jerseys before speaking to the crowd one more time.
"My thoughts are all over the place," Wade said after the game, a 122-99 victory over Philadelphia. "I think about the moment my agent came to the table in 2003 and told me the Heat were about to pick me at five (in the draft). It was a numb feeling, similar to what I'm feeling now. But from the first conversation I had in this building, I heard the love. And I appreciated it then, and I more than appreciate it now. So I'm sitting here the most thankful person right now.
"Wade County -- I love you."
No more Magic in L.A.
While the Mavericks and the Heat lavished appreciation on their departing heroes, the Lakers were completely blindsided by a legend of their own as president of basketball operations Magic Johnson announced minutes before tipoff of their home game with the Blazers that he was stepping down after barely two years on the job:
Johnson made the announcement immediately after coach Luke Walton's pregame comments, adding that he had not yet informed team owner Jeanie Buss of his intentions to step down.
"I like to be free," a liberated Johnson told the media. "I've got a great life... what am I doing? I've got a beautiful life. I'm gonna go back to that beautiful life. I'm looking forward to it. Somebody is going to have to tell my boss, 'cause I know she's going to be sick, but I know I couldn't face her face-to-face and tell her."
Buss later tweeted her appreciation for Johnson, who joined the Lakers as a rookie out of Michigan State in 1979 before leading them to five championships in his 12-plus seasons.
Earvin, I loved working side by side with you. You’ve brought us a long way. We will continue the journey. We love you 💜💛 https://t.co/ofmQl6BtBz— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) April 10, 2019
With Detroit's triumph over Memphis, just one playoff berth remains unclaimed entering tonight's finale, and the circumstances couldn't be simpler: The Pistons will clinch the last spot in the Eastern Conference with a victory at New York, while the Hornets will edge them at the finish line with a Pistons defeat and a home victory over Orlando.
There's still much to be determined seeding-wise, however, with only seven of 16 playoff berths locked in:
- No. 1 Milwaukee, No. 2 Toronto, No. 3 Philadelphia, No. 4 Boston and No. 5 Indiana in the East
- No. 1 Golden State and No. 5 Utah in the West
So, excluding those teams, Orlando and current West No. 3 Houston, which is locked in at 53-29 after its heartbreaker at Oklahoma City, here are the final games for the six other squads that have clinched spots but are still fighting for position:
Brooklyn, No. 6 in East — vs. Miami
Denver, No. 2 in West — vs. Minnesota
Portland, No. 4 in West — vs. Sacramento
Oklahoma City, No. 6 in West — at Milwaukee
San Antonio, No. 7 in West — vs. Dallas
LA Clippers, No. 8 in West — vs. Utah
Horry Scale: Moe Harkless
A reminder on The Horry Scale: It breaks down a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation (was the team tied or behind at the time?), importance (playoff game or garden-variety night in November?) and celebration. Then we give it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys, named for the patron saint of last-second answered prayers.
Sure, why not? A buzzer-beater on a night brimming with news and circumstance. Staving off what would have been a disastrous loss to the Lakers, Moe Harkless sank a wide-open corner 3 as time expired to ensure home-court advantage in the first round for the Trail Blazers.
DIFFICULTY: The Blazers couldn't have asked for a much better shot as the Lakers trapped Damian Lillard, who passed off to C.J. McCollum, who then found Harkless all alone in the right corner. Harkless is only a 28 percent shooter from long range, but his stroke was true to beat the Lakers' sluggish defensive rotation.
CELEBRATION: Harkless got the standard mobbing from his teammates, who were obviously excited but also more than a little relieved to avoid a brutal defeat to a Lakers team that has been on vacation watch for weeks.
GRADE: With home court in the first round already clinched, Harkless' shot could pay further dividends for the Blazers, who now have a shot at third in the West and, far more importantly, avoiding a potential second-round matchup with the deadly Warriors. Three-and-a-half Horrys.
PG-13 to the rescue
While it wasn't a buzzer-beater, Thunder star Paul George came through with a clutch 3 of his own, hitting from the left corner with 1.8 seconds left to edge the Rockets 112-111.
The bucket capped Oklahoma City's rally from 14 down with 9:26 remaining, and kept the Thunder a game up on San Antonio and the LA Clippers in sixth place in the Western Conference.
It didn't come without a huge stroke of luck, however, as NBA scoring champ James Harden misfired despite somehow getting wide open for a 3 of his own as time expired.
While it would have been impossible to divert the spotlight in Dallas, Suns veteran Jamal Crawford did his best with a 51-point outburst that, at 39 years old, made him the oldest player to reach the 50-point threshold. Including previous outbursts for the Warriors, Bulls and Knicks, Crawford also became the first player to score 50-plus with four different franchises.