DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) spent timeouts draped in towels to fight off a 101-plus-degree fever. Sometimes, he needed help to stand up from the bench. He wheezed through dead balls. He went weak with errant shots on the most open of looks.
Nowitzki was dog sick on a Tuesday night he and the Dallas Mavericks could ill-afford it. Eventually Miami was up nine in the fourth quarter of the fourth game, en route to a controlling victory, en route to “The Decision” morphing into the start of “The Dynasty.”
It’s when Nowitzki shook off what he could, dug deep to stand tall and delivered 10 final-quarter points and five final-quarter rebounds to seize this game and these Finals with a must-have, series-squaring 86-83 victory.
He then proceeded to cough and sniff through a bubonic plague of a postgame news conference.
“Yeah, he was struggling,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Everybody could tell looking at him that he labored.”
Wade immediately rolled his eyes and under his breath expressed his doubt.
“Sick?” Wade said softly.
Well, here you go. On one side, Nowitzki’s performance in the face of illness, his mustering the energy for a game-breaking spin move with 14.4 seconds left was all but ignored.
“I didn’t notice anything different with him,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
On the other side it was being compared to the flu-ridden 38 points Michael Jordan put up in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals – which, in fairness to all, vastly overstates what went down Tuesday. “I was way off, looking at my line,” Nowitzki said, noting his 6-of-19 shooting makes a mockery of that comparison.
No, this wasn’t M.J., yet this was nothing to ignore. Besides, history is written by the victors.
Mostly, this was the superstar delivering in the most critical of moments, rising up with the game and the season and this precious chance at a title on the line.
Where he couldn’t pour in the points, he snagged 11 defensive rebounds and helped hold Miami to just 14 fourth-quarter points. Where he couldn’t finish around the rim, he made all but one of his 10 free throws. Where he couldn’t dominate with the ball, he called for it anyway so he could make the proper pass while creating space for Jason Terry(notes) (17 points), Shawn Marion(notes) (16) and Tyson Chandler (13).
In a game where LeBron James(notes) took just one fourth-quarter shot and slunk into some kind of bizarre decoy role, Nowitzki made sure his presence – no matter how fevered and fading – was felt on nearly every possession. If nothing else, he was going to go down swinging.
“He did everything he could possibly do,” Carlisle said. “The ball was moving to other people. He was creating when he could create. The play he made at the end getting the ball to the rim was a great play.”
Miami was unimpressed. Or unaware. Or still uncertain what had happened, how another late lead had slipped away, how these Mavericks just wouldn’t die, how this series was suddenly a bitter best-of-three.
Miami may not believe Dirk was sick. You can believe they are sick of Dirk.
“Well, he’s one of the greatest ever,” Carlisle continued. “He wants the ball and he wants the responsibility of winning and losing the game. So we make every effort to put him in those situations.”
Nowitzki did everything he could to downplay his physical condition. He certainly wasn’t asking for some hero treatment. “Just under the weather a little bit,” he claimed. Moments later he was dropping his illness on the microphone, one woofing cough after the next.
“You know, this is the Finals,” he said. “You’re going to leave it out there.”
And to think the rub on Nowitzki used to be that he was soft. No matter where these playoffs wind up, that’s over. He’s constantly battled, leading wild fourth-quarter charge after fourth-quarter charge. He’s played with a torn tendon in his left index finger. And he’s pushed through a June fever that was ready to derail everything.
“You got a guy that’s 7 foot, 7-1 – there’s a different kind of toll that it takes on your body when you’re sick,” Carlisle said. “During the timeouts he stayed down until the very end, until the horn blew and conserved energy the best as he could.”
In the end, he needed every bit of it. When he finished his media session, he went looking for rest. Game 5 is Thursday and it’s no less critical. So he shuffled his feet through a back hallway of the American Airlines Center, his warm-up jacket zipped up to his face. He alternated between taking sips of water and looking like he might keel over. He was surrounded by team personnel, headed, in all likelihood, for an IV and a long sleep.
He slowly passed in front of the Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Club, a private bar filled with Mavs fans toasting this great victory, marveling at their star’s resilience. As they caught a glimpse of him, the savior of this series looking like death warmed over, here came the screams, here came the chant.
Nowitzki could muster just a weak wave of recognition as he slowly passed by. Sick? Yes, he was sick. Just not sick enough to skip out on crunch time, not sick enough to let everything slip away to Miami without throwing one last Texas punch.