After Dirk Nowitzki hit that game-winning lefty layup to cap a furious fourth-quarter comeback that gave the Dallas Mavericks a stunning 95-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Thursday night, there was a rattled rush to pinpoint when, how and why everything turned around.
It's totally understandable — for the first 41 minutes of Game 2 (and really, for most of the first 90 minutes of this series), Miami had looked like a clearly superior unit, capable of operating on athletic and defensive levels that Dallas just couldn't match. Behind a dominant turn from Dwyane Wade, the Heat looked like a top-heavy doomsday machine set to simply overpower their more execution-dependent veteran opponents.
Then, with 7:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade hit a 3-pointer from the corner right in front of the Mavs' bench that pushed Miami's lead to 15. The AmericanAirlines Arena crowd erupted, everyone told everyone else they were watching with that the game was over, Wade held his hand in the air and LeBron James excitedly punched his teammate in the chest a few times. From that point on, Dallas ripped off a remarkable 22-5 run that sent the NBA Finals back to Texas all-square and changed the narrative of the series.
That reassembling of the narrative around the potential/perceived-slight-as-turning-point wound up dominating much of the postgame press conferences and television discussion. Many who watched and covered Game 2 drew a bright, bold line beneath the play you see in the video clip above (or, if you don't, that you see here, thanks to Ben Golliver) and identified it as an inspirational moment of truth. One such story came from Yahoo!'s own Dan Wetzel, who called the Heat stars' post-triple celebration "relatively tame by NBA standards," but took Wade and James to task for daring "to taunt the Mavericks — or at least [daring] to not even consider that they might be taunting the Mavericks," thus waking a sleeping giant.
It's not hard to see why; after all, several members of the Mavericks, including Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, did say they saw and were irked by the raised-hand-and-fun-punches. Especially given the good-versus-evil story underpinning this Finals matchup, the memeification of that moment was inevitable.
But it doesn't really tell us much about the actual anatomy of the comeback — the basketball reasons behind why Dallas won the last seven minutes. Those were pretty interesting, too, and certainly worth another look in the harsh light of morning. Let's hit 'em after the jump.
Terry started to hit shots. After missing 4-of-6 shots through the first three quarters on Thursday night, 11 of his first 16 field-goal tries in the NBA Finals, and 52 of 80 attempts since the last time he was (not) guarded by a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas' secondary fourth-quarter scorer finally got into a bit of a rhythm.
He missed his first two shots of the final frame, but heated up midway through the fourth, scoring six points in less than a minute to cut the Miami advantage from 15 to single digits with 5:20 remaining. Terry tacked on another bucket with 3:11 left to bring the Mavs within four, giving him eight points (half of his total Game 2 output) in the final 12 minutes, which was surely a heartening sight for Dallas fans whose eyes have been made sore watching Jet clang jumpers for the past two weeks.
Dallas cleaned the glass. Much was made of Dallas losing the battle of the boards in Game 1, allowing the Heat to rip down 16 offensive rebounds while only managing six of their own. They outrebounded Miami 41-30 overall on Thursday night, posting a 14-10 advantage in the fourth quarter, including a 7-4 win on the offensive boards.
After the Heat went up 15, the Mavs grabbed nine rebounds to Miami's four. Perhaps more importantly, Dallas gave up only two offensive rebounds during that stretch, both of which came after missed 3-pointers taken by the Heat with just over a minute left, during what ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh referred to as "the 55-second possession of doom," as the Heat looked to extend a lead that had dwindled to two points. Neither carom led to a Miami basket.
Dallas started running staggered ball screens. With about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle made an awesome adjustment, running a staggered pick-and-roll with Nowitzki and Chandler that gave Miami a look it hadn't seen, prevented the Heat from bringing their brand of pipe-bursting pressure on ball-handlers in screen situations, and created multiple variations and options for Dallas' half-court offense.
The set, shown in the clip above and masterfully illustrated by Sebastian Pruiti at NBA Playbook, netted Dallas eight points, including two made 3-pointers, in four possessions, playing a huge role in slicing the Heat lead. It was a game-changing coaching move by Carlisle, one that in Pruiti's opinion "may have won Dallas the series" by wresting home-court advantage from the Heat before Sunday starts three straight games in Texas.
Miami stopped getting to the rim and started chucking long balls. Throughout Game 2, whether in transition after forcing a Mavericks turnover, in the post after realizing that Wade couldn't be guarded by DeShawn Stevenson or Jason Kidd, or in the half-court offense generated by sharp cuts off their now-customary elbow sets, the Heat — read: Wade and James — had gotten into the paint seemingly at will, and done quite a bit of damage once they got there. Miami shot 15 for 22 (68.2 percent) at the rim in Game 2, according to Hoopdata, with its top two scorers missing just twice in 14 attempts, generating highlight-reel plays most of the way.
But Miami attempted 12 field goals after Chris Bosh made a bunny with just under eight minutes remaining in the fourth. Only one — a layup that James short-armed with 5:28 to go — was taken in the paint; in fact, that miss was the only attempt from closer than 15 feet out. Only two Heat shots — the Wade three that launched a thousand columns and the Mario Chalmers three that tied the game at 93 with 24.5 seconds remaining — found the bottom of the net.
Some will blame Miami's offense for moving away from its regular sets and flow in favor of a more isolation-heavy attack that seemed content to let the sand pass through the hourglass and bank on the ability of one of its signature stars to plant another dagger in Dallas' heart. Some will credit the Mavs' defense for making life more difficult on Miami's slashers in the last half of the fourth, especially by trapping more on Heat pick-and-rolls, as The Two Man Game's Rob Mahoney brought up and James discussed during the postgame press conference. Whether the answer is one, the other or a bit of both, the end result was Miami moving away from what made it successful throughout most of the game's first 41 minutes.
Dirk was, well, Dirk. After missing his first two shots of the fourth quarter and hitting just six of his first 17 tries on Thursday night, Nowitzki closed like a monster. He hit 4-of-5 shots in the final 2:44, scoring Dallas' last nine points and sealing matters with that lefty layup.
As he had throughout the playoffs prior to some slight struggles in Game 1, Dirk got where he wanted, got what we wanted and, as our Y! colleague Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, once again got the Mavs where they needed to go:
Now, he had absorbed every blow from Wade and James, and he was still standing, still swinging in the final minutes. There were 24.5 seconds on the clock out of the timeout, and it ticked down until the ball found its way to Nowitzki. He was going to the rim, and going with absolute audacity. From right to left, he ripped the ball through the air, dribbled past Chris Bosh, past flailing Heat arms and hands, and never hesitated to raise the ball into the left hand [...] The ball dropped into the basket with 3.6 seconds left — his eighth and ninth straight points to end one of the most improbable, incredible and indelible comebacks in NBA Finals history.
Out of nowhere, out of a hellacious resolve, the scoreboard finally flickered: Dallas 95, Miami 93.
Sure, maybe Wade and James stoked Dallas' competitive fire by being excitable after a big shot, and maybe that inflamed passion spurred the Mavs to play harder down the stretch. But just because, as CBSSports.com's Royce Young wrote while the smoke cleared in Miami on Thursday night, it reads, sounds and feels good to peg every valley to "the ego and arrogance of the Heat," we shouldn't lose sight of this handful of actual, on-court basketball things. They sure looked like they had as much to do with the Heat flailing and the Mavs sailing as anything else.