NEWARK, N.J. -- With the New Jersey Nets up 86-85 and closing in on their first three-game winning streak in two years, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called timeout to draw up a final play with 20.1 ticks left.
Where would he go? Jason Terry couldn't buy a bucket, 0-of-5 to that point in the fourth quarter. Dirk Nowitzki had made just six of his 23 shot attempts and was falling short on almost everything, another indication that he just doesn't have the lift back in his right knee. The hottest player going was J.J. Barea, who buried all three of his jumpers in the period, including two crucial 3-pointers, the only ones the Mavs would hit on six tries.
So what would it be, Rick?
"A few other things cross your mind," Carlisle said, "but when it comes down to it, there’s really only one place to go in that situation."
Obviously, as one 7-foot German might say.
"We had had some other looks," Carlisle said. "I love the way Barea came through for us down the stretch, but I felt in that situation putting the ball in his hands was probably not fair to him."
Nowitzki got the ball at the top of the circle and it was clear it would be his game to win or lose. Six-foot-nine Nets forward Stephen Graham stood between Nowitzki and the bucket. Nowitzki sized him up, drove into the paint, stopped, pivoted, juked and floated a fallaway. It caught rim, rolled around and just as it looked like it was about to spill off the lip and out, the ball backtracked as if tugged by a string and dropped in with six seconds to play for an 87-86 lead.
The Nets' final play broke down in confusion and Jordan Farmar's 3-ball likely wouldn't have even beaten the buzzer on a review if it had somehow fallen.
"I tried to concentrate even more," Nowitzki said, taking into account his long night of misfires that included a rare airball. "That’s probably one of the best looks I had all night, in the paint, 5-, 6-footer, up-and-under. Right there is usually my shot and even that one almost rolled out so it was a frustrating night for me offensively again."
Still, Nowitzki came through in the clutch as he has so many times in a game the Mavs had to have to snap a five-game road tailspin and otherwise brutal couple of weeks having played 11 of 17 games on the road and six of the last seven.
As for Nowitzki's right knee, well, even he seems to be growing weary of waiting for his strength to return to pre-injury levels. In his last three games, Nowitzki is 18-of-55 from the field for 32.7 percent. Before he sprained the knee on Dec. 27, he was averaging 24.1 points on a remarkably efficient 54.5 percent shooting.
"I don't know what's going on. I'm running in quicksand out there," Nowitzki said. "I can't make a move, got no legs...I’ve got to be aggressive, keep on shooting and ultimately I’ll shoot my way out of it."