DALLAS – In the aftermath of their loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks couldn't stop making excuses. The Heat hadn't so much won the title, Dallas decided, as it had been given to them, courtesy of poor officiating or the Mavs fumbling away the critical third game.
"Dirk says they gave us the championship last year, but he's the reason they lost," Wade told Miami reporters in 2007. It's "because he wasn't the leader that he's supposed to be in the closing moments.
"At the end of the day, you're remembered for what you did at the end."
Nowitzki has said nothing during this series about those words, about that charge against him half a decade ago.
Whatever his failure then has been corrected. Dallas has taken control of these Finals, taken mighty Miami and its all-star crew to the brink, taken the veneer of inevitability and invincibility right off LeBron James(notes) and Co. because Nowitzki has turned into a leader for the ages.
Dallas beat Miami 112-103 here Thursday and the Mavericks are now up 3-2 heading into Sunday's Game 6 back in Florida. And it wasn't just Nowitzki's game-high 29 points that made it so.
It was how he's helped build up a supporting crew of castoffs and role players, how he's demanded excellence from starters and subs alike, how he's found the perfect balance of knowing when to take command of a game and when to defer to a better option.
The Heat are a collection of talent still searching for their roles, still seeking consistency and accountability and urgency. It's LeBron trying to sunshine another loss with "we played good enough to win." Dallas has turned into this machine that keeps coming and coming and coming, undeterred by talent, unwilling to compromise.
"Persistence is our game," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
When six straight points gave the Heat a 96-95 lead with just 5:16 remaining, when America Airlines Center had gone from deafening to doubting, when it all seemed to be slipping away, there was the 7-foot German in the huddle during a timeout, pleading for exactly that persistence.
"Just stick with it," he shouted. "Just stick with it."
This was the series on the line. The Mavs had hit a million shots and were losing anyway. They were in the process of holding LeBron to another quiet fourth quarter (just two points) and were about to blow it still. So after Nowitzki was done talking – and after Wade had increased Miami's lead with a 3-pointer – Nowitzki demanded the ball, got to the lane, got fouled and, of course, knocked down his free throws.
"Kind of settle everyone down," he said. "I thought it was big of us not to shoot a bad jumper and they go down in transition again."
He then stepped back and let his guys rise up. It was Jason Terry(notes), who Nowitzki had called out earlier in this series, draining two back-breaking 3-pointers. It was Shawn Marion(notes), previously benched in crunch time, producing a key steal. It was blue-collar Tyson Chandler(notes) delivering a huge block. It was Jason Kidd(notes) burying a 24-footer.
After his free throws, Nowitzki would never need to score again. Dallas would deliver a 17-4 knockout run, and the most clutch performer in these playoffs – hero of big shot after big shot – didn't need to do all the scoring.
Nowitzki has the Mavericks exactly where he wants them – believing so fully in themselves that they've found a way to close out games that all of Miami's heavy hitters can't.
And yes, it's his team. It's unequivocally his Mavericks. There isn't a debate here; no star-by-committee system. He's taken a hold of this group the way he grabs the news conference microphone. Owner Mark Cuban has stopped talking to the media, seemingly lifting a mountain of pressure off his troops. Carlisle is comfortable deflecting praise onto the players and spends half his time crediting Dirk effusively.
After the game, Terry talked about one of his late, contested threes, and acknowledged he was so confident he probably would've taken it even if the shot clock wasn't running down.
"Dirk don't want to hear that," Terry said.
Not Carlisle, the coach. Dirk, the leader.
This has been an impossibly tight series, every game coming down to the final minute, if not the final shot. Across the way the Heat are still fumbling with how to finish, wondering who should take the shot, who should step up on defense. They stand around and look at each other. Some won't shoot. Some shoot too much. Some won't defend. Some chase themselves out of position.
Until these Finals, the Heat were able to overwhelm opponents in the final minutes. They just swallowed up the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. Now they've met an opponent with even more will, with an even greater killer instinct.
It was supposed to be the Heat that could count on a committee at the end. It was supposed to be this purposefully assembled triumvirate that would cause the defensive chaos. Would Wade take the final shot? Would LeBron? Would they drop down to Chris Bosh(notes)? Was there any way to cover them all?
Instead it was Miami coach Erik Spoelstra who looked out of ideas, looked resigned to the fact that Dallas just won't stop coming for the crown.
"It is not easy against this team," he said.
When everyone thought it would be Nowitzki who would try to win it, he flipped the script and here came Terry, Marion and Kidd. Here, earlier in the game, came J.J. Berea, this 5-foot-9 blur seemingly out of a pick-up game at the Y, torturing the Heat with 17 gut-punch points.
"Nowitzki requires at least the attention of 1½ and often two guys," Spoelstra said. "…A lot of actions involve Nowitzki."
It all comes through Dirk now, here in this tightest of Finals, here in this endless parade of pressurized moments. Torn tendon. High fever. Double teams. Nothing is stopping him. Nothing is keeping him from doing exactly what Dwyane Wade roasted him about five years ago.
"At the end of the day," Wade said back then, "you're remembered for what you did at the end."
It's 3-2 Dallas now. It's one game from everything for these Mavericks. It's one win from answering that long-ago criticism for Dirk Nowitzki.
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