It seemed like Jerian Grant's potentially game-winning heave hung took hours. At least for Dirk Nowitzki, it did.
"That last three was in the air for them to win, it felt like it was in the air forever," he said.
The shot nicked the far side of the rim and caromed off harmlessly, sealing the 91-89 win for the Dallas Mavericks as the buzzer expired. Nowitzki would have felt anxiety for any game-deciding shot, but this one was particularly tense. The Mavericks desperately needed the win to keep their late-season playoff push alive and, even worse, Nowitzki's miserable shooting evening was the main reason that shot could have affected the outcome in the first place.
"If we lose this game, we probably wouldn't get any sleep tonight," Dirk said, his 5-of-23 shooting evening still weighing heavily after the game. "This way, I might get a few hours (at least)."
For years, Dallas' front office has tried to put a team around Dirk that could support him when he wasn't his best. The 2011 championship team famously did just that -- in Game 4 of the Finals, when he was sick with the flu, and in Game 6, when he shot 1-of-12 in the first half. Dirk carried the Mavericks for virtually that entire playoff run, mind you -- but in the brief moments he needed a pick-me-up, his teammates delivered.
In 2016, the 37-year-old needs help more frequently, yet it comes left often. Offseason surgeries slowed down Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons this season, with the latter now out for the year after another knee surgery. Zaza Pachulia gave the team everything he could, but wasn't truly up for the task of replacing DeAndre Jordan, something he should never been asked to do. Now Deron Williams has missed four straight games when the Mavericks desperately need his shotmaking, in a three-way tie for the No. 7 seed and exactly two weeks left in the season.
Somehow, it seems like all the responsibilities that had supposedly been taken away from Dirk are right back on his shoulders. The same Dirk that the Mavericks have been trying and failing to make the team's second-best player for five years now. On Wednesday, misses followed each other, one after another. Following the third quarter, where the Knicks pounded Dallas 26-16, it looked like Dirk's struggles would be too much to overcome.
And then a weird thing happened in the fourth: the Mavericks won the game.
"It's odd -- I was hot there (for a two-week stretch) and we lost all our games," Nowitzki said, referring to the Mavericks' 10 losses in 12 games prior to Monday's win against the Nuggets. "Now I'm (shooting poorly) and we're 2-0. I'll obviously take the two wins."
The drained roster somehow filled it up, from top to bottom. There was J.J. Barea, scoring a team-high 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including an enormous game-tying 3-pointer with a couple minutes to go. There was young rookie Justin Anderson, sparking the team on both ends with athletic defensive plays and dive-on-the-floor-if-that's-what-it-takes hustle that the entire team praised. There was Wesley Matthews, who only made four field goals but hit them at timely moments. There was the entire team's defensive effort, helped by the Knicks' incompetence but fueled by Dallas' overall drive to come back and to win the game for Dirk.
"Our backs are against the wall," Anderson said. "We understand what we're playing for, Dirk and his career. We want to put this organization in the place that they're used to being in, and it's a lot of pride on the line for the name on the front of our jersey. Right now, we're just playing hard, we're playing solid basketball."
That's really the only way the Mavericks can play right now, missing so much on the offensive end. They just have to make it work, something Matthews, the team's de facto defensive leader, understands.
"We need to be able to struggle offensively and still be in games, still win games," Matthew said. "We can't struggle offensively and give up 100-whatever many points. If we're struggling offensively, then they have to struggle offensively. Just know we're going to grind it out and give ourselves a shot at the end."
The romanticism of the win -- they did it for Dirk! the shorthanded lineups somehow found a way! -- fades when you remember this victory came at home against Knicks, who were missing Kristaps Porzingis and are no longer trying to win games as the lottery looms. But Dallas can't concern themselves with that, not in the midst of the uphill climb that this playoff push has become. After a couple poor performances, Dirk knows he'll have to be at the front of the push if it happens during the regular season's final month.
"(I'm) obviously happy with the guys playing well and giving us a lift and getting some stops," Dirk said, who half-joked, half-mentioned that he'll probably get a call from Holger, his longtime shooting coach, in the morning. "(But) if we wanna make this stretch run here, I've gotta mix in a few makes, I'm guessing."
Get Dirk going again, and maybe the Mavericks can run off a real playoff run here. But really, they just have to accept any win, regardless of where they come.
"In the battle where we are, we'll take any win and we can be happy with that," Dirk said.