Another nail-biting, one-possession game in the final seconds. Another Dallas comeback. Another dodgy storyline to surround LeBron James with. And another brilliant performance from Dirk Nowitzki as he led his Mavericks to a 86-83 win in Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals on Tuesday night, tying the series at 2-2.
Nowitzki's line of 21 points and 11 rebounds wasn't anywhere near his all-time best, but considering the circumstances, this may have been his finest moment as a pro. Nowitzki sweated his way through a case of the flu, and a 102-degree fever in the win. After initial struggles, he managed to spin his way toward 10 tough fourth-quarter points as the Mavericks overcame a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit. Nowitzki was clearly gassed throughout, and once word leaked at halftime that he was playing through that fever, Dallas' hopes seemed dim as Dirk missed jumper after jumper. But somehow, a gutty, determined Mavericks team hung on.
And the Heat fell apart, again. LeBron James managed a playoff career-low eight points in the loss. He was sparkling as a facilitator at times, garnering hockey assists and actual assists (a team-leading seven of them), but he also missed 8-of-11 shots, was nowhere to be found down the stretch, and was repeatedly beaten on defense by Shawn Marion in the first three quarters of the game. Dallas allowed just 14 Heat points in the final quarter, mixing up zone principals with desperate man-to-man defense, as both sides traded missed shots and extreme effort from the first quarter onward.
Had Miami squeezed out a few more points, Dwyane Wade would have been the obvious hero as he dropped 32 points with two steals and two blocks. But Wade missed a crucial free throw late as Miami attempted to tie the game in the final minute, and Dirk's spinning right-handed lay-up helped seal the deal soon after. Both teams managed to combine to miss 27-of-33 3-pointers, as both offenses (finely tuned, this late into the season) moved the ball expertly only to clang away on good look after good look. But, as it's been all series, the winner had just enough to eke it out late in the final two minutes.
From here, the storyline will shift to what will be a beyond-crucial Game 5, still played in Dallas. If the Mavs fall short, they'll be faced with the task of pulling out two wins in Miami just to win these Finals. If Miami loses during Thursday's Game 5, its backs will be against the wall for the first time in these playoffs.
From here, though, the storyline will definitely shift to the disappearing act that James gave his team in Game 4. He just hasn't looked comfortable battling Dallas' widening array of defenders, as they throw several different players and defensive sets against the guy that seemed quite at home with single-handedly dismantling two fantastic Chicago and Boston defenses in the two previous rounds. As has been the case with Chris Bosh and Wade at times this year, James acted as the odd-man out as those two nailed shot after shot (Bosh finished with 24 points), but that's no excuse for missing two important free throws late in the fourth, and for not working extra hard on the baseline and away from the ball when Dallas' zone defense fires up.
For now, though, the story is Dirk. It was a game reminiscent of Michael Jordan's infamous performance in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, one that saw Jordan work past his own touch of the flu and lead his Bulls to a series-defining win. Jordan had 38 points in that game, 17 more than Dirk, and the image of an exhausted Jordan being propped up by Scottie Pippen as the Bulls walked to the bench after sealing that win remains indelible, but Nowitzki's work on Tuesday night was no less admirable, and no less remarkable.
Sort of the story of what has become a brilliant, competitive series between two teams that just don't know when to give up