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Dirk Nowitzki lingered on the bench during timeouts, waiting for the horn to sound before getting up. When he made a key shot, he walked back on defense without so much as nodding in celebration.
He was sick. A sinus infection left him coughing and wheezing, his temperature spiking to 101 degrees. At tip-off, he was still worn out from hardly sleeping the night before.
Somehow, he managed the energy to play Game 4 of the NBA finals.
And, like a flu-ridden Michael Jordan in Game 5 of the 1997 finals, he still managed to lead his team to a pivotal victory.
Nowitzki struggled through the first three quarters, then willed himself and his team at the end. He scored 10 of his 21 points and grabbed five of his 11 rebounds in the final period, lifting the Dallas Mavericks to an 86-83 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night that ties the NBA finals at two games.
This best-of-seven series has been reduced to a best-of-three. Game 5 is Thursday night in Dallas, and you can be sure Nowitzki will be suited up again.
"Hopefully I'll get some sleep tonight, take some meds and be ready to go on Thursday," he said, sniffing throughout his postgame interview with his warm-up jacket zipped all the way up, still in his uniform instead of changing into street clothes like the NBA prefers.
This victory guarantees the series will continue with a sixth game in Miami on Sunday. Everyone from the ratings-hungry folks at ABC to basketball fans across the world are probably rooting for a seventh game considering how things are going — three straight games decided by three points or less, with story lines ranging from Nowitzki's heroics to Dwyane Wade's spectacular play to the shrinking confidence of LeBron James.
Start with Nowitzki, since what he's doing is the most dramatic.
He already won Game 2 by scoring the final nine points in a 22-5 rally, making two of his final three baskets left-handed, despite having torn a tendon at the tip of the middle finger in the previous game and struggling to find the right kind of splint. He scored Dallas' final 12 points in a Game 3 rally that came up two points short.
Now there's this effort, when Nowitzki went from making his first three shots to missing 10 of his next 11. He also missed a free throw for the first time since Game 4 of the conference finals, ending a streak of 39 straight.
When his illness was revealed along the way, his poor performance made sense.
When Dallas trailed 74-65 with 10:12 left, it also made sense that Miami would go up 3-1, taking a lead that's never been overcome in the finals and only been blown eight times in any round of the playoffs.
But the Mavericks turned things around, outscoring the Heat 21-9 the rest of the way. Nowitzki was 2 of 5 during the rally, including a right-handed layup that spun in off the backboard with 14.4 seconds left, and made all six of his free throws.
"The average person, you know, has sick days and battling 100-something (fever), it's just tough to get out of bed," Dallas center Tyson Chandler said. "This guy is playing against the best athletes in the world."
In '97, Jordan scored 38 points when he was sick, lifting the Bulls to a victory that gave them a 3-2 series lead over Utah.
Asked to compare the two outings, Nowitzki said: "This is the finals. You have to go out there and compete and try your best for your team. So that's what I did. I never thought about MJ's performance. I was way off, looking at my line." (For the record, his line was 6 of 19, 0 of 2 on 3-pointers, 9 of 10 on free throws.)
Until the final minute, Wade looked as if he was going to be the headliner.
He was a dominant player on both ends of the court, adding a block at the rim of a dunk attempt by the 7-foot-1 Chandler to his growing collection of highlights.
There also was a three-point play on a driving shot that seemed improbable to go in; he was hit across both arms while shooting and had to grab the rim before the ball went through just to keep from tumbling to the ground.
But with 30.1 seconds left, he missed a free throw. With 6.7 seconds left, he fumbled an inbounds pass. He chased it down and got it to Mike Miller for a 3-pointer that would've forced overtime, but it wasn't even close to hitting the rim. Fans could tell how off-target it was and began roaring with delight while the ball was still in the air.
"I was kind of anxious because I saw an opening really fast, trying to get there before I caught the ball," said Wade, who scored 32 points, his fifth time cracking 30 this postseason. "Obviously I would love to have that play back. We would love to have a lot of plays back. It happened. It was unfortunate."
Then there was the LeBron James disappearing act.
"King James" made only 3 of 11 shots — a tip-in during the first quarter, then a 15-foot jumper and a breakaway dunk in the third quarter. Not only did he fail to score in the fourth, he took only one shot while playing all 12 minutes.
He finished with eight points, ending a double-figure scoring streak of 433 consecutive games, regular season and postseason. It was his fewest points ever in the playoffs.
It can't be dismissed as one of those things because of how badly the Heat needed him when things were falling apart. Miami scored a series-low 14 points in the fourth quarter, committing six turnovers and making only 5 of 15 shots. They actually made their first two, so they missed 10 of their final 13.
"I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively," said James, who nonetheless contributed nine rebounds and seven assists. "I'm confident in my ability. It's just about going out there and knocking them down."
The Heat came into this game thinking they should have been up 3-0. The Mavs felt they should have been up 2-1.
This game was all about figuring out whether Miami was going to run away with the championship, as many have expected since "The Decision" last summer, or if the plucky veterans from Dallas really had what it took to be champs for the first time.
Now it's 2-2. Both teams are 1-1 at home, and all those stats about who wins under various circumstances seem pretty moot.
"This series is a jump ball," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "These guys live for these type of moments. It's about execution and disposition in the fourth quarter, being able to close out. We have a golden opportunity in the next game."
Jason Terry — who kick-started Dallas' Game 2 comeback with six straight points, but was 0 for 7 in the fourth quarter of the other two games — got the Mavs going with consecutive baskets. He capped the winning rally with two free throws with 6.7 seconds left that forced Miami to need a 3-pointer to force overtime.
Carlisle shook up Dallas' lineup, starting J.J. Barea instead of DeShawn Stevenson, and made Brian Cardinal the primary backup for Nowitzki, instead of Peja Stojakovic. His changes worked out quite nicely.
Stevenson scored 11 points, his first time in double digits since Feb. 2. Cardinal drew a charge on James early and provided seven solid minutes, giving Nowitzki much-needed rest.
Terry scored 17, Shawn Marion 16 and Chandler had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Chandler also played a team-high 43 minutes because his backup, Brendan Haywood, lasted only 3:05 while trying to play through a hip injury that kept him out of Game 3.