Nowitzki saves Mavs in epic comeback

MIAMI – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) was tired of everyone messing with his chance to be a champion, mistake upon mistake pushing him to the brink. What the bleep? What were you thinking? The Mavericks had come back too far and somehow Jason Terry(notes) had lost his man, lost his mind and nearly lost these NBA Finals. One more time, Nowitzki had to go clean up a Mavericks mess. One more time, salvation had to come out of his guts and guile, out of his genius.

Son of a bleep, Dirk Nowitzki blared in the final huddle of the final chance to save everyone on these Dallas Mavericks. These two had gone back the longest together, back to the ’06 Finals collapse to the Miami Heat, and Nowitzki would be damned to let this happen again. Soon, they were walking back to the floor in the fleeting seconds of Game 2, and the ball promised to go back to Dirk again, back where it belonged, back where winning and losing would be decided with the flick of his wrist.

“I’ve got your back,” Nowitzki muttered on the way to the floor.

Nowitzki had everyone’s now – Jason Terry and Jason Kidd(notes), Rick Carlisle and Mark Cuban. Maybe most of the nation wanted to see the so-called Three Kings of the Miami Heat met with resistance, a challenge, and yet they were left to witness Dwyane Wade(notes) and LeBron James(notes) dancing on these Dallas basketball graves for most of the game. Everyone else on these Mavericks seethed, but Nowitzki never noticed the Heat’s preening with a late 15-point lead.

Nowitzki doesn’t rely on emotion to galvanize and inspire his game, but the steely detachment that comes with tens of thousands of hours of shooting, the muscle memory of the biggest shots in the biggest moments. All his life, Nowitzki was the nice guy, the big lug that would forever come close and forever be remembered as one of the Hall of Fame players without the ultimate validation of victory.

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(notes), past flailing Heat arms and hands, and never hesitated to raise the ball into the left hand with a freshly torn tendon in its index finger. 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.

Suddenly, this is a series again. Suddenly, the Mavericks are alive. And maybe most of all, the Mavericks delivered the Heat something that no one else had in these playoffs: a punch in the mouth. The Heat had been constructing an invincibility about themselves, a deliberate and dominating disposition. This game had been so easy for the Heat. Wade had 36 points on a dizzying array of shots and devastating dunks, and this was the 2006 Finals all over again. Wade had his way, and Dirk threatened to become a prop on the Heat’s path to immortality.

So yes, Wade drilled a 3-pointer with a little more than seven minutes left to make it 88-73, and the Heat were so clearly intoxicated with hubris. And right there, within a whisper of the Mavericks' bench, Wade and James preened and celebrated the scoreboard. The Mavericks were humiliated, humbled and suddenly angered. They called timeout, and Terry met eyes with Nowitzki in the huddle. “There’s no way we’re going out like this!” the little guard blurted over the din.

The Mavericks were getting danced upon and dunked on, and the scoreboard should’ve suggested that these Heat – and maybe this series – had become a runaway train. All around Carlisle these Mavericks finally gathered, and here’s what the coach would tell them: Remember the Oklahoma City game? Well, we came back from 15 points with four minutes left. Now, look up there, Carlisle said, nodding to the scoreboard. We’ve got seven minutes left. We’ve got extra time.

And so everything started with a stop on these Heat and another. James drove to the rim, had an easy layup and Nowitzki marveled simply, “He short-armed it.”

The Heat were a mess in the final minutes, transforming an aggressive, attacking offense into a tentative team trying to run the clock out. Wade had scored on an electric array of baskets, but James found himself running the shot clock down and tossing long, off balance 3-pointers at the buzzer.

Terry had been silent in this series, but suddenly started making shots. Kidd stopped turning the ball over. And Nowitzki was grabbing rebounds out of a tangle of bodies, and preparing himself for the final stunning minutes when he would score on a jump shot and layup to tie the game 90-90 and, finally, a long, sure 3-pointer with 26.7 seconds left. Now, it was 93-90 Mavericks, and the rollicking, rolling championship sway within the arena had been replaced with a stunned silence.

Terry lost his man on the inbounds play, let Mario Chalmers(notes) drill a 3-pointer, and Nowitzki wanted to kill him. Just beat him to a bloody pulp. It’s hard to stay angry with the gregarious Terry, even with the stakes so high, and it wouldn’t be long until Nowitzki had honored his promise with that fabulous, fitting drive to redemption. Everyone on the floor expected the Heat to use the foul they had to give, but Bosh never did.

Nowitzki rolled to the rim, laid the ball on the glass and this turned into an epic ending, a forever game that changes everything about these Finals. Once more, this was the Heat celebrating too soon, too boisterously. The price paid wouldn’t come in perception, but a reality: They lost control of this series, lost home court and now must grind two of three victories in Dallas to return to Miami for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.

Once, the Mavericks were considered an easy out in tough times. They were short on toughness, on physicality, on resilience. Five years ago, they had the Heat down 2-0 and a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before crumbling. Now, they keep coming and coming, all poise and persistence and perspective.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on their last legs,” Tyson Chandler(notes) said softly in the visiting locker room. A lot of last legs and last stands to be champions. Now, Nowitzki is on a hell-bent run to will these Mavericks to the finish line. Yes, Dirk could’ve strangled Terry in that final huddle for losing that Heat shooter in the corner, for forcing Nowitzki to thrust these Mavs on his back one more time and deliver one more booming drive to the rim, to redemption.

“I’ve got your back,” Nowitzki told him on his way back to the court, but he was speaking to everyone here. From Carlisle to Cuban, Kidd to Chandler, those big, broad shoulders can burden so much now. Ball in his hands, NBA Finals on the line, and suddenly there was no more dancing on the shores of Biscayne Bay, no more preening. Terry had been right about one thing: The Mavericks wouldn’t go that way, wouldn’t let these Finals turn into a coronation. Nowitzki hadn’t come to be a foil for the Heat’s stars, but the biggest and baddest closer in the gymnasium.

Out of nowhere, Nowitzki raised his arms in the stunned silence of American Airlines Arena on Thursday night. Out of Dirk Nowitzki’s guile, out of his genius, salvation belonged to the Dallas Mavericks. Damn right he had their backs.