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Going to the Garden

I went to the Garden to watch Mavs-Celtics. This is what I saw.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, I took my fiancée to Boston to see the Mavs play at the Garden. It's funny to think that, as long as I've  been a fan of the NBA, this was my first time watching the Mavs in an opponent's arena. The Celtics, in my memory, have never been worse, so it wasn't exactly a barn burner, but it's always exciting to go.

If I'm being honest, and I apologize for the feelings this might hurt in the broader Mavs community -- and for those of you who live too far away to even have the opportunity that I'm about to malign -- but I've never really enjoyed going to the AAC. I enjoy going to the games, and I know the Mavs have a sellout streak going back forever. Still.

Call it a personal taste thing, but to me, the AAC is an unending stream of neon, screaming vomit. Every single second of non-game time is packed with some insane, high-decibel carnival act. The P.A. never stops yelling, the sideline guys never stop throwing high energy infotainment at you from minute one to the time the game ends. I am assuming this is part of the reason that the Mavs have one of the longest sell out streaks in the biz. It just doesn't work for me.

In fact, in a close game, or an important one, it literally makes me furious. There's a timeout, it's 95-93, 25 seconds to go, and they're pounding Beyonce off the walls like there's a huge anti-Beyonce monster attacking the building and the only way to defeat it is waves of pure, concentrated Beyonce.

But I come to watch basketball and when the basketball is stressful I want to THINK about basketball. I don't need to have my skull exploded by pop music. I hate it. A lot.

The Garden -- TD Banknorth nee Boston -- turns out to be a terrific place to watch basketball. For all I know the subdued atmosphere came entirely from the fact that this Celtics team is basically NBA JV + Rondo, but it was quiet enough, and the game was the center of the experience (as it should be) enough that we could hear the extras from a Ben Affleck/Matt Damon movie behind us shout trade offers at each other. "How ‘bout Dirk for Rondo!" "Nah, he's 35!" "Rondo for Isaiah." "Isaiah Thomas? That little guy?"

It's not that I think Boston fans are better than Dallas fans, although it did feel like the Garden fans were there to watch basketball which doesn't always feel true in the AAC, but I'm just talking about being at the game. And being in the Garden was great.

The game was pretty great too.

Against this Celtics team, you could really see the Mavs' veteran-y veteranness. Everybody was missing shots in the first quarter, but the Celtics were taking bad ones, and they kept taking bad ones. The Cs have some really talented players, Rondo most of all, and at times the game would turn into the Rondo show, or the Jeff Green show and even, for a brief time in the fourth, the Chris Johnson show.  But each time it seemed like it was that guy taking the ball and trying to make something happen. When the Mavs began to hit their shots, it was as good as over. Caldy particularly had a good one, 7-13 for 18 points, 5 assists, and strangely enough 5 boards.

But everyone was pretty good. There was some Brandan Wright, some Devin Harris. Vince, for the most part, had one of those games that has me talking about taking him to a farm where old NBA players can run free but he eventually hit some big threes and ended up with 14.  Sammy D grabbed 11 boards and Shawn Marion had one of his throwback 11-10 nights. And Dirk was brilliant.

It doesn't exactly show in the box score, which was a very pedestrian, for him, 7-16 for 20 points. But most of the misses came late, and they weren't important. As the other Mavs struggled to score in the first, Dirk hit his first 3 shots including what the play-by-play describes as a 27-foot three-pointer and felt like 35. When he sat down with 5:56 left in the first, the Mavs had 8 points, and he had 7 of them. He'd go on to score 15 of their 44 first half points, including some absolutely classic leaners and lean-backs.

And there was, too, his veteran veteran-yness. I'm a huge Dirk homer but I've also watched Dirk his entire career so take this for what it's worth. He didn't score much in the second half. But when I was watching him, after he got his early, they were constantly, shoving him, pushing him, playing him close, running that double. I'm not complaining, I‘m saying in those situations the Dirk I know tends to throw his arms in the air, get some guys in trouble. And he didn't.  Who knows why? Maybe he was just tired.

But I don't think so. I think he noticed that as soon as they started closing in on him, the other guys on the team started taking advantage of having that extra space. The Celtics mostly singled Dirk in the first quarter, and he made them pay: he got everything he wanted. But as the defensive focus on Dirk increased, so did the Mavs' scoring. The team scored 17 total points in the first, but 27 in the second. 28 in the third. 30 in the fourth. It felt like he could have had 40 that night, but I think he decided to go for 20 and a comfortable win.

I recently read an article about Peyton Manning's children. Not his actual children, but the sudden and dramatic uptick in children being named Peyton, particularly in Tennessee from the day he decided to go to college there. As the article pointed out it's been long enough that many of those children were in college themselves, and doing interesting things.

I don't know why it really struck me, but at some point in the game I noticed that Kelly Olynyk is number 41. It's no surprise that as a tall, awkward white guy who likes to shoot long twos, he wants to pattern his game after Dirk, but that's not the point. The point is that Olynyk is 22 years old which means he was seven when Dirk Nowitzki entered the NBA. The point is, how long has that been his dream? To be in the NBA, wearing that number 41? Five years? Ten? Nearly fifteen?

The Dirk revolution, NBA GMs going out there and looking for versatile 7-footers is one thing. The Dirk generation is another thing altogether. Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls for good in 1998, and from Washington in 2003. Today's college freshman were born in 1996. They don't even remember MJ the Bull: the NBA they fell in love with starred Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson...and Dirk.  In 2 years, Dirk will have been in the NBA for the entirety of some college freshmen's lives.

My fiancee has gamely cheered for the Mavs for the four years we've been together, and I imagine she'd say that the Mavs' championship run is one of the first Mavsperiences she really paid attention to. Lucky for her, of course. But the first, and before this only Mavs games we got to together were in Dallas, the year after they got rid of everybody. We saw them lose to the Thunder in the third game of the season despite Dirk's  29-10-4 and then a few days later shockingly beat them for their second win, on the strength of Dirk's 26-6-3. In each game, weirdly Kevin Durant scored exactly one more point than Dirk, something he'd achieved only once in that 2011 playoff series. As it turned out, it was a sign from the gods. Months removed from beating the Thunder in five games, the Mavs would end the season by losing to them in four straight.

There were lots of reasons the strike season and the injury season were hard to watch, respectively, but it was the uncertainty that made it the hardest. We hoped, and believed, and I pretended I felt certain that a year with a real training camp, a year as moderately paced as the NBA season ever is, would show Dirk was far from done. But none of us really knew for sure. How could we? And we certainly don't know how long it will last.

Dirk plays the fewest minutes of any player in the top 24 of scoring, usually by 2-4 whole minutes, and he's the oldest person in the top 40 by two years. No one who scores more than him this season is in their 30s, period. The average age of the 11 guys ahead of him is 25, 10 years younger than he is. It's an amazing, amazing achievement, but it's also a warning. Charles Barkley was crazy wrong when he said Dirk was done, but he was very, very right that Father Time is up a million to zero, lifetime. Period.

And if Dirk's last two years were a reminder of the uncomfortable future ahead of us, last year's team was itself a firm portent of basketball mortality. It wasn't good. I like to think at least some people were honest enough to change their mind about tanking after watching a Collison-Mayo-James orchestrated offense. At the very least, we can all agree it wasn't much fun.

After that, we never knew if we'd get to watch The Great Dirk again, and we never knew if we'd get to watch a good team again. But here we are with both. The team is not great. But it's good. And it's still beautiful basketball, centered around a beautiful basketball player. For as long as it lasts. Best case scenario they add some talent at the trade deadline or in the off-season, they make it interesting for a couple more years. But there are a lot of scenarios that are more likely. I can more or less guarantee that you're not even going to enjoy the second half of this season as much as the first, because the schedule gets harder in March and doesn't really let up.

But there are games where you can forget all that, and that's kind of the point of the 2013-2014 Mavs.

As we stood in the cold subway station waiting to get ferried back to our hotel (another advantage the Garden has over the AAC) I told my fiancée how glad I was that we'd come. You know, we got to watch Dirk do his thing on a good team, in person, while it was still there to watch. Recent fan that she is, I got to show her just a little of what I'd been rooting for all those years before we met. We got to replace some of those O.J. Mayo memories with some of these. And I wouldn't trade it, even if it's just the end of it, for a goddamn thing, not Philly's literal raft of draft picks, not for New Orleans' young talent, not for anything. Not for anything.

There's a line in a short story I read once that I think of often. It's by A.S. Byatt and it's about...oh...19th century Britain and séances and so on. It goes "in stories, and very occasionally in sober fact, the cold and the sea give back what they have taken, or appear to have taken". That's what this season is about. And I am the more thankful for having had it brought to my attention through just a pinch of adversity.