Dirk Nowitzki’s season-long chase of Wilt Chamberlain has been torturously slow, and Saturday night’s first three quarters was more of the same.
But in the fourth quarter, 40-year-old Nowitzki summoned his old self, scoring 10 points during a 1:59 span, pulling within three points of tying Chamberlain for No. 6 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
With American Center fans urging on his every move and rising to their feet on every Mavericks possession, Nowitzki fired five more shots in the final 5:50, all misses, as Dallas held on for a 121-116 victory over Cleveland and Nowitzki fell just short of catching Chamberlain.
For this night, at least. Monday’s home game against New Orleans more than likely will be The Night, with Nowitzki needing just four points to surpass Chamberlain’s career total of 31,419.
“Obviously I was going for it there, just didn’t have the hot hand down the stretch,” Nowitzki said. “Forced it a little bit and didn’t really have any great looks. But, hey, it is what it is. They didn’t go in. We won the game and we’re moving on.”
On a night in which they played without leading scorer Luka Doncic (right knee contusion), the Mavericks ended their seven-game losing streak by having seven players score in double figures and finishing with 32 assists against only five turnovers.
“We were in desperate need of a win because it has been a long time,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.
Mostly, though, the night was about Nowitzki, who entered this season needing 232 points to catch Chamberlain, but missed all of training camp and the first 26 games while rehabbing from April ankle surgery.
Nowitzki entered Saturday’s game needing 18 points to pass Chamberlain, but through three quarters he had four points on 2-of-5 shooting.
“At this point, the whole world is going to know where things are at, which is cool,” Carlisle said. “Our guys have been aware of it since the All-Star break. And, as things have gotten closer, certainly the arena has been more perked up.
“Tonight it was mayhem in there. Anyways, he played great. With all the pressure situations that he has been in for well over two decades now, this is a different kind of thing. And if I’m putting myself in his shoes, a lot of it has to do with the respect that he has for those guys ahead of him. It is very pure.”
With 9:14 left in the game, Nowitzki warmed up by making a 12-foot fadeaway. Thirty-seven seconds later, he drained a 28-foot three-pointer.
After making a pair of free throws, he made another 28-footer, with 7:15 left. But he looked tired. Carlisle took him out for a brief spell before inserting him for another push.
The crowd roared every time Nowitzki touched the ball, and he felt the fans’ love.
“Especially after I made those back-to-back threes, the crowd went wild,” he said. “It was fun. It was a fun game. I haven’t played 30 minutes obviously in a long, long time, but it was good, though.
“Overall not great enough to push it over 18, but there’s always the next night, hopefully. . . If it happens at home, it’s even more special for the fans that have been riding with you for such a long time. I appreciate the support at home. Every time I sub in it’s been super-fun and super-emotional.
“Hopefully we can get this over on Monday.”
Doncic’s status: When Luke Doncic’s name appeared on the Mavericks’ injury report early Saturday afternoon, fans became concerned that he was experiencing lingering effects of the knee “pop” he said he felt six days earlier against Houston.
No need for concern. The “pop” occurred in his left knee and actually turned out to be a mild strain that wasn’t serious enough for him to miss any games. This right knee contusion isn’t considered serious. Doncic was walking Saturday without trace of limp.
The reality is Doncic probably was overdue for a break. This was only the sixth game he has missed this season, and the first since he sat out back-to-back games on Feb. 22-23 with right ankle soreness, the first two games after All-Star weekend.