Originally Published: June 8, 2011

1. Dirk Wheezes Early, Surges Late For Mavs

Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
Archive

DALLAS -- It would have made for a fairly-tale journal entry from the postseason ride of Dirk Nowitzki's life, except that no one's going to remember this one as a full-fledged Flu Game. Least of all Dirk Nowitzki.

Literally the first smile of Nowitzki's long, clammy, cough-filled night came at the interview podium late, late Tuesday. It came when someone asked if No. 41 -- 19 games and 55 days into a magical playoff run already filled with uncomfortable Larry Bird comparisons -- had finally found his inner Michael Jordan.

"Obviously I was way off, looking at my line," Nowitzki said, almost laughing at the question, as well as himself, by the end of his answer.

Jordanesque? Not quite. With Nowitzki stunningly missing 13 of 15 shots in one stretch, Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals wasn't exactly Game 5 in Utah in 1997. Under no circumstances does Dirk ever expect to clank like that. Not with a torn tendon in his left middle finger and not even with a temperature that had strayed into triple digits.

The Miami Heat, though, still saw way more of Sick Dirk than they ever wanted, along with some of the stiffest crunch-time D ever generated by the Mavs and some long-awaited production from his increasingly maligned supporting cast. With Nowitzki delivering early and especially late to sandwich all that, Dallas had just enough to eke out what indeed can safely be described as an 86-83 triumph that saved the Mavs' season.

No team in Finals history has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit. To its obvious relief, Dallas no longer has to worry about trying to be the first. It's a 2-2 series now -- "This series is a jump ball," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said -- after Nowitzki drained his first three shots and then recovered from an unfathomably long cold spell to manufacture 10 decisive points in the fourth quarter.

All while an anonymous LeBron James, hovering around the 3-point line more than he ever should, was slinking to a career playoff low of just eight points.

"He did everything he could possibly do," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Nowitzki.

"I love the way he played. Fighting through that was not easy."

Using a savvy spin at the free throw line to lose Heat forward Udonis Haslem and set up a tough game-turning layup -- with the right hand this time  Nowitzki wound up wowing just about everyone in the building before his hacking fit at the post-game press conference. The lone hedge, as always, came from Nowitzki's ever-demanding shooting coach, Holger Geschwindner, who came away saying: "Not pretty. But energy-efficient."

Try telling that to the Heat. Good luck convincing Miami after it followed up its Game 2 collapse at home by squandering a nine-point lead in the fourth here, all while watching James get more passive with every quarter against the Mavs' pick-and-roll blitzing and, later, their packed paint. Compared to LeBron's eight points, which included just one solitary field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki's 21 points and 11 boards must have seemed like Jordan's 38-point stratosphere in the '97 Finals.

"Every time he shoots the ball," Spoelstra said, "you hold your breath."

A wheezing Nowitzki didn't sleep much Monday night, didn't participate in the Tuesday morning shootaround, and had teammates and team officials somewhat alarmed in the run-up to this must-win home date because Dirk, as described by one longtime confidante, was so uncharacteristically "quiet" all day.

"He was barely able to talk," said Mavs center Tyson Chandler, supplier of 13 points and 16 rebounds.

Turns out Nowitzki got hit with a hard fever Monday night, which eventually took his temperature to 102 degrees. The irony is that, in Dirk's younger days, coaches and teammates actually believed that he often played better sick, when sinus infections were a more frequent occurrence. This performance, with his 33rd birthday less than two weeks away, was more about survival.

The national TV audience was treated to shots of Nowitzki coughing in huddles and guzzling water to stay hydrated while covered in towels and jackets, revealing the secret Dallas had tried to conceal as long as it could. But Dirk and his Mavs eventually made sure that their season can't end at home in Game 5 on Thursday night, helped along by a late missed free throw and fumbled inbounds pass by an otherwise brilliant Dwyane Wade along with Carlisle's switch to a zone that flummoxed the Heat on eight straight possessions in the fourth.

So this time, assuming that the relentless Wade (32 points) and Chris Bosh (24) will soon be rejoined by the James who had such a swagger going in the first three rounds, Miami will have to finish the Mavs off in Miami.

And if James can't shake his sudden funk? Then it's more than the series scoreline that's deadlocked. Several Mavs not named Nowitzki outplayed King James on this night, including Jason Terry (after challenging LeBron publicly) and DeShawn Stevenson (after losing his spot in the Mavs' starting five). The playing field is far closer to leveled, going forward, if LeBron can't respond to the forthcoming torrent of armchair doubt (and worse) he's about to be subjected to after the indignity of hearing Bosh, Miami's No. 1 bash-ee all season, telling the assembled press that James "struggled ... point blank. Period."

That's because Miami also has to know that Nowitzki, by Thursday night, will be a lot more dangerous than he was for most of his 39 minutes in Game 4. The Heat have the home court in two of the three games that remain, true, but you wonder how much they're ultimately going to rue their failure to close against Dallas' dogged zone D on an evening that Dirk shot 6-for-19 and the Mavs shot 4-for-19 on 3s as a team.

"Couldn't really finish around the rim," Nowitzki said. "Had a couple of good looks today, but just really no lift. But, like I said, the crew was outstanding.

"There's no long-term [prognosis]. I'll be all right on Thursday. It's a little sinus infection."

Torn tendon. High fever. What's next?

Based on the evidence presented so far in these Finals, Dirk can roll with pretty much anything but Jordan talk.

"Wow," Terry said when asked to weigh in on the parallels to MJ in '97. "A Jordanism?

"I wouldn't quite call it that, but hitting that shot down the stretch was key. Iso [against Haslem], free-throw-line, took it to the rack, got it done. Big time."

Said Mavs guard Jason Kidd, having just supplied perhaps the most effective 39 minutes of scoreless basketball in Finals history to match Nowitzki's PT load: "We always believe he's going to finish. No matter what the circumstances are."


Dimes past: May 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | June 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

2. Carlisle's Moves Key For Game 4 Win

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

DALLAS -- Rick Carlisle said the players win the game, and in the big picture he's right about that.

But in a series of razor-thin margins between the players on the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks, the slightest of adjustments can have an outsized impact. Three straight final-possession games have the Mavs and Heat justifiably tied at two apiece, and Tuesday it was the subtle adjustments Dallas' coach made before and during the game that swung it.

We talked about Dallas' superior depth heading into the series, but look at the box score and you'll realize the Mavs were using a tighter rotation than Miami's. Carlisle made a fairly complex series of adjustments that involved changing his starting backcourt so that he could entirely reupholster his forward rotation, and then threw a few more wrinkles into his special fourth-quarter sauce as the Mavs once again rallied late.

Ultimately, he was using a 7.5-man rotation, with Brian Cardinal as the 0.5 with "remove only in case of emergency" tattooed on his warm-ups. Dallas' bench only played 71 total minutes, barely more than the 67 from Miami; only six Mavericks scored.

And Carlisle made it work.

He made it work first by bringing DeShawn Stevenson off the bench and starting J.J. Barea at point guard. After a series of bad starts by Dallas' starting lineup, Barea's ball pressure and penetration got Dallas into a better offensive flow early in the game. After constantly finding themselves digging holes early in each half, the Dallas starting five was a +1 on Tuesday.

Starting Barea rather than Jason Terry kept Terry in his accustomed bench role (although it still limits his minutes -- he played 35 while the other prominent players on both sides played at least 39), and Carlisle pointed out it's something Barea has done before. He started 16 consecutive games in the middle of the regular season.

"He gives us a different dimension to our team," Carlisle said. "I thought he did a good job. His stats don't look great, but his penetration helped us and his ball pressure helped us."

• For the full story, click here »

3. Daily Dime Live

Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans gave their in-game opinions on all topics throughout Tuesday's slate of NBA playoff talk in Daily Dime Live.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?