My favorite memory from Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett’s 18-year rivalry, which is now officially over due to KG’s retirement over the weekend, isn’t a playoff moment or a heated clash during their primes. It happened four years ago during a very mundane game in January between two teams going nowhere.
Garnett was 36 and leading the last gasp of the Big 3 Celtics. Dirk was 34, relatively out of shape after taking a well-deserved victory lap from the 2011 title and leading a less-talented team with an MIA Lamar Odom.
When you watch hundreds of basketball games every year for most of your conscious life, it would be very easy to forget that game. This game, though, I’ll never forget. Mainly for this:
Just two old dudes going at it. It didn’t matter that both of their primes had past them by. It didn’t matter that Garnett had lost a few steps — he was going to crowd Dirk and try to eat his lunch. It didn’t matter that Dirk had started his metamorphosis into the first-ever basketball playing mummy — he was going to take one of the greatest defenders of all time off the dribble and to the rack.
It also led to perhaps the all-time greatest tweet from a Kardashian:
Fucking Dirk!!!!— Khloé (@khloekardashian) January 12, 2012
That’s what I remember most about the two — they went at it. Even though from the surface they did it in different ways, with Garnett’s legacy being a loud, powerful paint presence on offense and defense and Dirk somewhat quietly shooting his way up the all-time scoring list, they were closer than we thought.
Both changed the way the power forward position was viewed — Garnett as a do-it-all menace on offense, dropping dimes, extending his range past the free throw line and being a pick and roll terror and Dirk as perhaps the greatest floor-spacing big of all time and one of the most dominant post-up scorers of his generation despite not being a hulking brute. The way the league plays basketball now is owed in large part to these two bigs doing things bigs typically didn’t do.
They both carried mostly-spare supporting casts to great but disappointing heights. Who was Garnett’s greatest Timberwolves teammate during his prime? Was it ... Latrell Sprewell? Wally Szczerbiak? Sam freaking Cassell? Garnett never made it to the Finals with the team that drafted him and faced numerous playoff disappointments in the first round.
Sound familiar? Dirk didn’t have quite the horrible luck Garnett did in Minnesota — Jason Terry would have easily been KG’s best teammate — but that’s in part because Dirk was so incredible at elevating his rosters past their talent threshold. The Mavs spent countless years looking for the Robin to Dirk’s Batman. Terry, Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Caron Butler — all great teammates, but none were All-Star quality in Dallas.
Following that same path, both finally reached the promised land when given a balanced roster. KG had a bit more help with Boston’s big three, but let’s not forget how damn good Tyson Chandler, Terry and Jason Kidd were in the playoffs.
Against each other, Dirk enjoyed the success. There’s just something about Dirk where he absolutely brings it against the best of the best. Garnett wasn’t the only all-timer Dirk torched, much in the same way Dirk wasn’t the only one Garnett jammed on from time to time. While that playoff series win against the Jazz in 2001 is mostly seen as Dirk’s coming out party, for me it was that next year against the T-Wolves in the playoffs.
Dirk stole KG and the T-Wolves’ souls in three games, averaging 33.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and canning 8-of-11 triples.
Dirk got the better of Garnett in the regular season (20 wins for Dirk to 17 for KG) and the playoffs (Dirk and the Mavs’ 3-0 sweep in 2002 the only time they met in the playoffs), and I can’t help but feel that KG’s brashness and boldness rubbed off Dirk in an important way. Pieces of Dirk’s rivals seemed to latch onto Dirk over the years — Tim Duncan’s quiet dominance, Kobe’s ruthless crunch-time heroics and then KG’s swag. In a way, I feel Dirk doesn’t become Dirk without challenging these greats, Garnett one of them. Those players forced Dirk to become an all-time great just to compete.
I won’t miss Garnett the player who ravaged the Mavs for years on end. I’ll miss his presence though and miss another all-time Dirk rival who’s gone quietly into the sunset, which only sadly reminds me once more that Dirk isn’t far behind.