Andrew Unterberger is two-thirds of the way through his quest. Here’s his latest report…
After getting some high-quality breakfast tacos to eat and watching about 20 minutes of the Bill Simmons broadcast of the Heat/Warriors game (seems like he did OK, though most of his early points were ones I’d already heard him make about a half-dozen times each on his podcasts), I left Austin to head back up to Fort Worth once more. There my grandfather and I caught a TRE train to Dallas ((he had raved all trip about the efficiency of taking the train to the game, though showing up 45 minutes early to catch it nullified its benefits somewhat) for the Mavericks-Jazz game at the American Airlines Center.
My grandfather has become a Mavericks nut over the past decade — rarely a visit between us passes without him waxing rhapsodic about Dirk’s scoring and Kidd’s passing — so I was excited to get the chance to see a game with him live. And after one of the better games of my trip in San Antonio, I expected the Mavs to raise the bar even higher with their Saturday night showdown to continue their double-digit win streak.
The Stadium: Inconspicuous enough from the outside — the building’s front is adorned with nothing but the American Airlines “AA” logo — on the inside, the building is fairly tremendous. It felt absolutely huge, easily one of the biggest of my trip, and though it was certainly nothing compared to that of its nearby football brother, the building’s JumboTron was by all other standards enormous and immaculate, as well as flanked by two similarly pristine scoreboards on either side of it. And the activity all around the court was very impressive, from the group hanging up “A”s to mark Jason Kidd’s assist count, to the Mavs Maniacs laying down some nice moves and the Mavericks drum crew providing better energy than the regular spate of Ke$ha and Black Eyed Peas songs. “They always put on a show,” commented my grandfather.
Appropriately for the American Airlines Center, the hallways around the perimeter of the stadium felt a whole lot like an airport. It was a lot cleaner, shinier and more fragmented than your average NBA arena, and the whole thing felt at once comfortable and alienating, just like a quality terminal lobby. Even the bathrooms were sparkling, with sink mirrors that somehow turned into TV screens when you weren’t standing directly in front of them (pretty fucking cool, actually.) The one drawback was that the concession stands were also airport-quality — the variety was pretty lousy, and me and my grandfather got stuck waiting in line almost the entire halftime period to get a box of popcorn and a chili dog. (To be fair, though, the chili dog was mad good.)
The Game: Both winning streaks, the Mavs’ and mine, seemed safe as houses about halfway through the first quarter, as the score sat at 29-4 in favor of the Mavericks, and the play on the court made it seem like it shouldn’t even have been that close. The Mavs were drilling everything they were putting up, almost everything an open shot — especially from Dirk, who hit three jumpers for eight points in about 90 seconds — while the Jazz didn’t seem to get a single good look all quarter, Tyson Chandler’s paint-patrolling impact on defense every bit as good as advertised. The crowd was delirious, and I’d never heard my grandfather so animated over anything in my life. (“He’s a real fan,” Mat, the fan next to me noted, either impressed or frightened.)
It couldn’t last — anyone who’s ever watched the Mavs for more than a couple games a season knows that as quick as these offensive spurts can come for them, so can they dry up, so it was just a question if the Jazz could respond. Well, the team couldn’t really, so Deron Williams decided to do it all himself.
I’ve written previously about how in the previous games I’ve seen him play, D-Will dominates quietly, without being particularly noticeably impressive. Well, this game was noticeably impressive, as he slashed, pulled up and and-oned the team back to life in the end of the first quarter. (The and-ones were particularly impressive — how he even got plausible shots off after some of those fouls was plenty ridiculous.) It’s that takeover gear — which only a handful of otherwise-unselfish point guards have, really — which threatens to set Williams apart from some of his less killer-instincted brethren, and I was certainly glad to get a chance to witness it in person.
But, the Mavericks still had Dirk. As the Deron-led Jazz cut the Dallas lead to ribbons, the Mavs decided enough was enough, and just started clearing out for No. 41 on the wing. Though I expected a succession of his trademark breathtaking fadeaway jumpers to seal the deal, Dirk wisely opted instead to start charging the basket, drawing fouls to keep the team afloat, and eventually drawing the double-team in the team’s final offensive possession that allowed him to kick the ball out to an open Jason Terry for the game-clinching corner three. Nowitzki ended the game 10-12 for 31 points — a typical Dirk stat-line, aside from the three free throw misses (which as someone on the train pointed out, was more than he had missed from the field all night.) All in all, certainly one of the best games I’ve seen on my trip, and every bit the suspenseful main event the billing promised.
The Fans: The crowd wasn’t quite the turnout my grandfather had predicted (“You won’t find an empty seat in the house,” he had somewhat erroneously promised), as the building was certainly well-attended, but not without a healthy percentage of empties in both the lower and upper deck. Still, the fans there did their part in going appropriately nuts over the team’s impossibly hot start, getting uncomfortably quiet as the boys squandered their lead, and going completely apoplectic at the Jason Terry three at the end of the fourth quarter. (“Terry just lives for those last three seconds,” I heard a fan beaming on the train after the game, though I think technically there were at least five seconds left. “He loves taking that last shot.”) Mat related the city psyche to me: “Dallas fans are notoriously pretty tame,” he explained. “You gotta give ‘em a reason to get on their feet.” Good thing they got a couple, then.
There was no shortage of raves for the man who gave them the majority of those reasons over the last decade. “His shooting stroke is hotter than hot right now,” Rob Mahoney of the excellent Mavs blog The Two Man Game said of Nowitzki before the game. “Combined with some better-than-ever passing and some smart defense, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to call this his best ball.” Mat agreed that Dirk’s shooting was as good as he’d seen it, adding that though he was concerned about the Big German’s age, he “doesn’t look like he’s slowing down this year.” My grandfather put it simply, as I’d often heard him before: “He just gets better and better every year.” It’s about impossible to find fault with that statement, and looking around the arena at the sparsity of retired jerseys (Just two: Brad Davis and Rolando Blackman) and the impossibly-high number of Nowitzki No. 41s in the crowd, it’s clear that this is the guy who will define the Mavericks franchise for decades to come.
Further lauding was due to new pickup Tyson Chandler (Rob: “He’s a perfect anchor for the Dallas D, challenges shots well at the rim, and rotates expertly, sure, but [he] also has hands and finishing ability that no other center in franchise history can match”), and the general improvement the team had shown on the less-exciting side of the ball. “The increased focus on defense,” Mat answered when asked about the team’s hot start. “The offense has always been there, but now they’re holding most teams under 100 most nights.” Rob agreed: “Every year on Media Day, Mavericks Coach X says they’re going to play better defense and run more. This year the former is actually happening, even if the Mavs still play at a snail’s pace.”
Oh, and get-well-soons were afforded to Roddy Beaubois, who everyone lists as crucial to the team’s future, and whom my grandfather still refused to include him in the imaginary Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony deals he had engineered for the Mavs in his head.
Most Popular Jerseys: Dirk Dirk Dirk Dirk Dirk. Some Kidd (even a nice 90s throwback) and some Terrys, but half our train was donning the Nowitzki No. 41. Not much in the way of retro, but I was glad to see a couple fans still repping the Josh Howard No. 5. He certainly kept things entertaining during his time at the American Airlines Center.
Also Worth Noting: “Do they talk up defense as much at other stadiums?” Mat asked me at some point during the third quarter. No, not really — the AAC called out its fans to get the”DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” chant going just about every time the Mavs trotted back on their heels downcourt, even though no one but a group of young girls in attendance seemed to pay it any mind until the fourth quarter. You gotta use that shit in moderation, Mavs PA guy. Otherwise, the opposing teams might acclimate to it too quickly, you see.
Swag Acquired: Nothing as bluntly symbolic as the Spurs hammer, but I did pick up one of those Nowitzki #41s everyone at the stadium seemed so fond of. I was really hoping to scope out one of their 70s font green alternate jerseys, but XXL was the only size they had, and I feared a self-fulfilling prophecy. The white-and-blue is hot anyway.
Best Coast – “Goodbye.” Don’t remember the last time there was an album as accurately titled as BC’s “Crazy for You” — 12 delirious love songs filtered through the lens of near-frightening mental instability. This one’s probably my favorite.
Can my good fortune continue outside of the Lone Star state? Heading up to Oklahoma City to find out, and to get annoyingly further away from that nice-and-warm Equator. Ugh.