The Mavericks made boosting their basketball IQ a major offseason priority because of late-game situations like Friday's.
That didn’t keep the Mavs from crumbling in their first crunch-time opportunity of the season.
Give LeBron James credit for carrying the Miami Heat to the 110-104 win Friday night. He shredded the Dallas defense in remarkably efficient fashion, scoring a season-high 39 points on 14-of-18 shooting. But the Mavs boarded their private jet for the brief flight to Orlando feeling like they let one slip away.
As they should have. This had all the makings of a classic performance by Dirk Nowitzki, one of the premier NBA closers of his generation, until the Mavs couldn’t figure out how to get the grooving German the ball with the game on the line.
Nowitzki snapped out of a minislump, by his standards, by scoring a season-high 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range. His last bucket was a thing of beauty: After catching the ball on the left wing, he faced up against Chris Bosh, pump-faked, took one dribble to his left and swished a 17-foot baseline step back to trim the Heat’s lead to one point.
The problem: Dirk knocked down that shot with 2:31 remaining. He barely touched the ball the rest of the game despite the fact that he had the hot hand, having scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.
“Dirk’s No. 1 thing is he wants to throw the daggers,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before the game, according to The Dallas Morning News, downplaying concern about the need for Nowitzki to wear a rubber sleeve on his left knee. “He wants to be the guy at the end of the game hitting that shot. If he could, he’d wait to the end of the game and go in and do that. He wants to be able to produce when the pressure’s on, period. End of story.”
Nowitzki’s body was clearly able Friday night. There’s no doubt that he craved the chance to hit daggers in Miami, which would have conjured up sweet memories of the champagne-soaked 2011 title celebration.
The Mavs just didn’t feed their beast when it mattered most.
Nowitzki got one touch the rest of the game, and that lasted for less than a second. With Dallas trailing by three points the possession after his step-back jumper, Nowitzki caught a cross-court pass on the left wing outside the 3-point arc with Miami guard Norris Cole within breath-smelling distance and immediately gave up the ball. He never got it back, with that possession ending on a turnover when Dwyane Wade tied up DeJuan Blair on a pass in the paint from Jose Calderon.
Nowitzki, defended by James, was a high-profile decoy on the next possession. With the Mavs still trailing by three, Monta Ellis caught the ball on the right wing with seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and ended up launching a low-percentage, off-the-dribble 3-point attempt that wasn’t close.
Determined to get Dirk involved, coach Rick Carlisle called for the Mavs’ bread-and-butter play on the next possession with Dallas trailing by five. The high pick-and-pop with Ellis didn’t exactly work as planned, with Ellis leaving his feet in the paint and throwing a prayer of a pass back to Nowitzki at the top of the arc. James, who never left Nowitzki’s side on the play, came up with the steal for the Mavs’ 24th turnover of the night.
Three critical possessions in crunch time, two turnovers, one low-percentage shot and only one brief touch for Nowitzki.
Not exactly what the Mavs envisioned with their new, improved, experienced backcourt during winning time.
"It's fun to compete at the highest level against the champs,” Nowitzki told reporters. “We've just got to be a little better."
Nowitzki couldn’t have been much better offensively. When he’s in that kind of groove, the Mavs have to get him the ball with the game on the line.