by Russ Bengtson

The Mavericks’s biggest lead was 23, established on a Dirk Nowitzki and-one with 6:10 to go in the third quarter. The final margin was 10. The Knicks never led, the outcome was never in doubt. Whew. Glad we got that part over with.

PREGAME

Mark Cuban stands in the front of the cluttered visitors’s locker room, holding forth for a small circle of writers. This is all well and good, except for the fact that it’s a small room to begin with, and the circle occupies a rather crucial space between the door, a projecting laptop and a screen, which basically blocks off the rest of the locker room. Those of us uninterested in Cuban’s pontifications (Dancing With the Stars, the state of the Knicks, various and sundry other subjects) have to squeeze by the best we can. Mike Lupica is here, so it must be an important game.

Josh Howard is a rarity. An All-Star coming off a career-high 47-point performance against the Utah Jazz, the 27-year-old forward not only is willing to talk pregame, he seems to welcome it. An unjaded All-Star with a genuine smile (braces and all) open to discuss anything with anyone at any time? Consider this his nomination to the All-Interview team.

In the middle of things, Dirk Nowitzki stalks into the locker room, barks something unintelligible, and kicks one of the tall, cylindrical Gatorade coolers (which is full of ice, water and various beverages) in the center of the room. He doesn’t seem mad, so I guess it’s just some sort of way of making sure people notice him.

“Head coach, Isiah—BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!—Thomas!”

The player that draws the most cheers during introductions is Nowitzki. Since Stephon Marbury is sitting this one out (and does not appear to be in the building) his boos are doled out to Eddy Curry.

FIRST QUARTER

Josh Howard starts the scoring with a three-pointer, Dirk can’t miss, and the Mavs gallop out to a 9-5 lead. Dirk has six points and three rebounds in four minutes, which means he’s on pace for a 72-point (on 36-36 from the floor), 36-rebound night. He also appears to be playing decent defense on Zach Randolph, although Z-Bo has been just plain atrocious in the last two games.

Q buries a three over Devin Harris, does that head bump thing, and Nowitzki comes back with two more jumpers—the second on a spin-then-spin-back-the-other-way move that makes Eddy Curry look even more lost than usual. Dirk finally misses his next shot, and you feel a little air go out of the Garden. At this point fans aren’t just coming to SEE the opposing team, you get the feeling they’re actually rooting for them.

All isn’t perfect under the Little General, though—Erick Dampier picks up two quick fouls and gets the early hook (for Brandon Bass) and Dallas manages two defensive three-second violations in the game’s first seven minutes. Which is difficult.

Quick celeb rundown? Sure, let’s get ‘em out of the way: Ranger center Scott Gomez (who hardly anyone acknowledges—he looks up at the monitor and just laughs), Keri “Felicity” Russell, Mets pitchers Oliver Perez and John Maine (some applause, mostly booing—deserved too, jerks), Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller (I wonder briefly whether she can run the point), Steve “Once a Soprano, Always a Soprano” Schirripa, Jadakiss (who looks not entirely unlike a puffier Nate Robinson), and a few other actor types that I can’t remember.

There are some substitutions (enter Jerry Stackhouse, DeSagana Diop and David Lee), some successes (Dirk with a corner three over Zach), some misses (a Jamal Crawford brick leads to a Stackhouse dunk and a ridiculous sideways running three, also by Crawford, misses pretty much everything), and the Dallas lead is double-digits.

At the very end of the quarter, Dallas up 28-16, Nate Robinson wets a three to cut the lead to nine. He has a knack for those end-of-quarter threes that prevent further booing and chanting. Somewhere, Bernard King is repeatedly punching himself in the face. Dirk has 15 and 5 after one, which means he’s on a more realistic 60-20 pace now.

SECOND QUARTER

In the first 33 seconds of the second, Diop manages to accumulate a turnover, a foul and a goaltend. Even more impressively, Avery Johnson doesn’t shoot him.

The Knicks have their energy guys on the floor (Nate, Balkman and Lee) and a couple of second chances lead to a Balkman pass underneath to Lee for a two-handed dunk. Meanwhile, Dirk Nowitzki is on the bench and Dallas starts to build their lead. Maybe he’s only playing in odd-numbered quarters.

Nate Robinson isn’t afraid of anyone. That’s how he got to the League in the first place, and he needs to play like that if he’s going to stick around. Still, driving straight at a shotblocker like Diop is a bad idea. It’s like a fly playing chicken with a Ford F-250. Also, Nate’s idea of ball movement seems to mean it bounces often between the floor and his hand.

Dirk checks back in around the same time Jared Jeffries gets off the bench for the first time. I suppose Jared could console himself by pretending the boos are for Dirk, but they aren’t.

SCARY THOUGHT: What if there were a jump ball between Zach Randolph and Erick Dampier? Would they just cancel the game? Because neither of them, you know, jump.

To paraphrase the great Ty Webb: ‘You’re not, you’re not good, Jared Jeffries. You stink.’ In fairly rapid succession, he’s dunked on by Diop, tries to shoot a layup THROUGH Diop, then tries to squeeze a pass through a non-existent space between Diop and Dirk.

The Jamal Crawford Experience leads us to halftime, where the Mavs lead 49-36. The Mavs are shooting 58 percent and the Knicks, well, they’re not. Z-Bo has Z-Ro.

THIRD QUARTER

Dallas scores six straight points (Dirk 4, Josh 2) to start the quarter off proper, and Isiah calls an immediate 20-second time-out to sort things out. Of course on the ensuing inbounds, the ball winds up in Eddy Curry’s hands 20 feet from the basket with the shot clock running out. I’m guessing Isiah doesn’t have a playbook. Twenty-four second violation.

Dirk hits a WIDE OPEN three to push the lead to 20. Seconds later he hits a pair of free throws, and he’s got 28 and six with NINE MINUTES left in the third. I’d say he’s a mortal lock for 50 except for the fact that he shouldn’t be playing after the 36 minute mark if things go right.

They don’t.

At this point, Eddy and Zach have six points between them. Josh Howard then scores six points in slightly more than 30 seconds of gametime on a pair of wide-open three-pointers. The Knicks are lulling the opposing offense to sleep by letting them take whatever shots they want whenever they want. I think I’m starting to figure this all out.

It’s weird, there’s a lot of players here who joined the NBA around the same time I started covering it—and most of them aren’t playing. Stackhouse is, of course, but Juwan Howard is a DNP, Eddie Jones is on IR, Felipe Lopez is one of the media horde, and Jamal Mashburn is in the stands. Also, Popeye Jones and Mario Elie are both part of the Mavs coaching staff.

Oops, 79-63 Dallas after three.

FOURTH QUARTER

Whatever. Zach gets hot (he winds up with 24 points, all in the second half) and twice gets the Knicks to within seven, but the outcome is never really in doubt. Dirk goes one for four in the fourth and still finishes with 36 points. And Eddy Curry has injury added to insult—after playing a dreadful game, he’s popped in the mouth by an inadvertent Howard elbow and leaves the court bloodied and bowed. At least the booing stops. Final score, well, you saw that already.

POSTGAME

Weirdness. Instead of Avery Johnson popping out first (I don’t get there in time, but apparently he tears into his team—a win by 10 over the Knicks essentially being a loss), four Mavs emerge and head to separate corners of the earth. Howard and Stack hit the court, Terry to a separate room, and Dirk stops right outside the door. TV and radio stuff.

In one of those weird “only in the Madison Square Garden hallway” moments, Jadakiss stands three steps from Mark Cuban, who is deep in conversation with Jesse Jackson.

The Isiah press conference beatwriter parade cuts right through Avery Johnson’s (finally) press conference. Luckily Avery is, how you say, shrill. “At the end of the third, the guys that were in there let the whole team down. I had to come back with Dirk and Damp in the fourth.” Like Milwaukee before them, Dallas was lulled to sleep by New York’s crafty “no-defense defense” and almost didn’t wake up.

Someone brings up the fact that they almost did lose, and Avery is quick to shut down all that noise about almosts: “We won the game. For us to win two games in a row right now—no wet blankets. Only warm, dry blankets.”

Inside the locker room, not too much happening. Devin Harris wins ensemble of the night with his wine-colored velvet jacket and bowling-shoe like Guccis. Further down the bench, Trenton Hassell pulls his still-buttoned button-down on over his head, looks down, and realizes he has it on backwards. For a second I think he’s making a fashion statement, but judging from his expression that’s definitely not the case.

Juwan Howard pauses before dressing to sign a card for a ballboy. It’s a Bullets card. I ask out of curiosity, and he affirms that most of the cards he signs these days are Bullets cards.

Not sure who the dapperest is on this squad—Juwan is good, but Jerry Stackhouse might be better. Stack dresses slowly in a corner, answering questions about athlete safety following the Sean Taylor murder and the Jamal Tinsley shootings. He mentions that he’s always lived with a relative, “not because I’m scared, just for safety in numbers.” He says something about O.G.’s, and hell, that’s exactly what Stack is. I remember one time a couple years back asking if his cell number was still the same because it had a Washington area code and he was playing in Dallas. He seemed surprised that I’d even ask, despite the fact that some players seem to change phone numbers on a damn near monthly basis: “I don’t have to hide from anyone!” He still has that same DC number now.

Over on the Knicks side, apparently there was some discussion about a fan who was told off by Isiah. If you’re interested, read Howard Beck’s story. I don’t even want to know.