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Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Updated: June 9, 9:23 AM ET
Tyson Chandler rises to the occasion

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- So much of this tremendous Dallas Mavericks postseason run has centered on Dirk Nowitzki's effort to reshape his legacy, and ageless (ring-less) Jason Kidd defending the league's most prolific scorers who view him as a mentor.

Make room for another movie-ready script of redemption on this quest for gold.

Center Tyson Chandler, the 7-1 bearded pogo stick of fire-and-brimstone, has been everything the Mavericks hoped he would be and what no one knew for sure he could be.

Two seasons of disheartening foot injuries and swirling doubt are being wiped clean with every snarl, every growl and every right fist he pounds into his ever-broadening chest.

In the first NBA Finals appearance of his 10-year career, Chandler has saved his most ferocious basketball for the Miami Heat's dynamic duo. In fact, the three prior teams with which Chandler toiled had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

His monstrous 13-point, 16-rebound effort in the Mavericks' 86-83 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday night was mandatory, what with Nowitzki under the weather, ailing backup center Brendan Haywood unable to stay in the game and coach Rick Carlisle gambling with an altered starting lineup.

Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler is averaging a career playoff-best 10.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.

It could go down as a defining performance in this incredibly competitive series that is now deadlocked heading into Game 5 on Thursday night in Dallas.

No team -- ever -- has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. And, with a helping hand from Chandler, the Mavs don't have to try to become the first.

"It was all about effort," Chandler said. "We knew that it was going to be a tough night … with the lineup change and then the way Dirk was feeling. We were going to have to step up and we were going to have to do whatever it took to get the win. I knew my guys would need more shots tonight, so I tried to crash the boards as well as get out in the lane and run and get some easy baskets."

Chandler, who is averaging a career playoff-best 10.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Finals, is providing the type of passion and production at the center position that the Heat have lacked all season.

He grabbed nine offensive boards -- eight coming after the first quarter. He became infuriated watching five Miami players pull down nine boards in the first 12 minutes with 6-9 center Joel Anthony getting position for four.

It allowed Miami to end the first quarter in a tie despite shooting 29.2 percent.

Four of Chandler's offensive rebounds came in the decisive fourth quarter as Dallas battled back from yet another deficit -- 74-65 with 10:30 to go. All of those came in the final 5:43 to help limit Miami's possessions as both teams struggled to score.

"Tyson Chandler," guard Jason Terry said, "what he did on the boards for us was huge."

His putback of Terry's missed layup pulled Dallas to within 78-77. Terry then gave the Mavs the lead for good on the next possession.

"I knew I had to have a big night. I just told myself, 'What can I do that I haven't been doing of late?'" Chandler said. "And I felt like I can get out and run, open things up, get on some screen-and-rolls, and open myself up on the glass."

Chandler was at his best when his energy had to be at its lowest. Haywood tried to return from a right hip flexor injury that sidelined him for Game 3, but he lasted just three minutes. Chandler, who played 21 minutes in the first half, was needed for 22 of 24 minutes in the second half.

Perhaps most impressive is how he has eliminated cheap and untimely fouls that had doomed him to an early seat on the bench. Chandler had just five fouls in 83 minutes in Games 3 and 4 after being hit with 10 in 72 minutes in Games 1 and 2.

After Chandler's season-high 43 minutes Tuesday, the cold reality has set in that his minutes will have to remain high -- and his fouls low. Haywood said he won't play in Game 5, and he could be lost for the remainder of the series.

More Chandler, however, could be horrible news for James.

The Mavs won't slow both superstars. As their old tormentor Wade continues to pile on the points -- 32 more Tuesday night -- James has just 25 in the past two games combined after a career playoff low of eight in Game 4. He is being bothered by instant traps and Chandler's imposing presence as the last line of defense.

James' fortunes largely have revolved around Chandler's floor time. When Chandler is playing, James has averaged 12.3 points per 36 minutes, according to number crunching by NBA.com's StatsCube. When Chandler sits, James' scoring soars to 22.8 and his field goal percentage rises to 55.0 compared with 44.0.

Most telling is this statistic: With Chandler on the bench, James registers a plus-25.2. With Chandler on the floor, James is a minus-5.4. In Game 4, with Chandler and James playing nearly identical minutes, James finished 3-of-11 from the floor, 0-of-1 in the fourth quarter and minus-6 overall.

"Just the will to win," Chandler said. "Our defense kept us in the game."

And Chandler's unfolding fairy tale of a season is one reason the Mavs stand two wins from a first NBA championship.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.