That much-ballyhooed matchup between Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis lived up to its top billing Monday night.
And it was the veteran, Nowitzki, who made the biggest baskets and kept his team poised while leading them to a much-needed victory.
Nowitzki scored 25 points, grabbed six rebounds and the Mavs upended the Knicks 104-97 before a sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden. The victory enabled the Mavs (13-9) — who also won at Washington on Sunday — to sweep this short two-game road trip before they return home to host Atlanta on Wednesday.
All the talk going in centered on future Hall-of-Famer Nowitzki and Porzingis, an up-and-coming rookie who was the fourth pick of last June’s NBA Draft. While Porzingis finished with a game-high 28 points and two rebounds, it was Nowitzki who slapped the Knicks around early by scoring 11 of the Mavs’ first 13 points and reminding everyone of his legendary status.
“The first play was called for me and I was able to knock that down, and then we just rolled from there,” Nowitzki said. “The second play was actually a transition play and they lost me and I was able to shoot a 3.
“And then once you make your first two shots, it’s kind of on from there. They started switching some on their pick-and-rolls and I had some matchups that I took down in the post and was able to shoot over them.”
The Mavs led by as many as 23 points — 81-58 — following a basket inside the paint by Wesley Matthews with 4:38 remaining in the third period. But Porzingis led a furious rally by the Knicks (10-12), who inched to within 101-97 of the Mavs after the rookie from Latvia connected on a 3-pointer with 43.2 seconds left in the game.
However, with the crowd finally getting into the game, the Mavs closed things out with a free throw by Nowitzki and a pair of free throws by point guard Deron Williams.
“Dirk got us off to a great start,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He loves these types of situations. It’s really great to see him taking the challenge of a young guy like this. I thought throughout the whole game he was very consistent, and when we needed to get a few stops, we did.”
While the Nowitzki-Porzingis matchup was taking center stage, a sidebar to it all was Williams, who played the previous four seasons for the Brooklyn Nets before they bought him out of his contract this past summer. In a steady-hand performance, Williams contributed 20 points and seven assists in his first game in New York since the buyout.
“It wasn’t being back here,” Williams said. “It was about getting a win for this team and being 2-0 on this road trip.”
Williams made 7 of 15 shots and scored 16 of his points in the first half, which concluded with Dallas nursing a 63-50 lead.
“Deron played a really terrific all-around game,” Carlisle said. “He put the ball in the basket, got us in the right stuff at the right time, he drove the ball, got to the free throw line when we needed to kind of reset ourselves on offense.”
The Mavs were on fire early, and finished the night 13-of-31 from 3-point range. Dallas hit 6 of 10 3-pointers in the first quarter — two each by Chandler Parsons and Williams — and rolled to a 34-28 lead. A lot of that came as the Mavs fed off the offensive execution from Nowitzki.
“He just came out and set the tone for us on offense,” Williams said. “And he did a good job of giving us some energy and giving us a big lift as well as being the big reason we got off to that great start.”
Guards Devin Harris (bruised ribs) and J.J. Barea (sprained right ankle) did not play.
Meanwhile, Nowitzki was well aware of the hype surrounding Porzingis.
“I was able to set a good tone,” Nowitzki said. “Sometimes we’ve been getting some slow starts, especially at home. So tonight, me getting some shots to go really helped us to get off to a good start and we kind of rolled from there.”