MIAMI -- The Mavericks saved the world Thursday night, at least the basketball world. They proved to themselves, to their opponent, and to everyone else who has tried to beat them that the Heat aren't invincible.
As breathtaking as the Heat have been closing out games in these playoffs, they were the opposite in Game 2 of the Finals. And so instead of the excruciating boredom we were facing, watching the Heat steamroll to the title they were built to win, we have drama. We have a series. We have a reason to watch.
With 7:14 left in what seemed like another inevitable Miami celebration -- one that already had begun, actually, right in front of the Mavericks bench -- all you could think about was this: Who's going to beat this team? If not the Celtics' Big Three or the MVP, then who? If not the Knicks, by adding another star to their duo of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, or if not the teams that wind up with Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, then who?
In Game 2 of the Finals, it was the Mavericks who beat the Heat and restored order and sanity to the universe by reminding us what a thrilling playoff comeback and tight, meaningful series are all about. Erasing a 15-point deficit with 7:14 left with a 22-5 run, the Mavs beat the Heat 95-93 to even the Finals at 1-1. The series shifts to Dallas for the middle three games beginning Sunday night, with the home team having hope and the Heat having a layer of invincibility stripped away.
|NBA Finals: Game 2|
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"We knew they were beatable," Tyson Chandler said. "We beat them twice in the regular season. This is different, though. We're playing for the NBA championship. We felt like we gave them Game 1."
But at that point, after Wade's corner 3-pointer in front of the Mavs bench gave the Heat an 88-73 lead, you could feel the nation checking out of this series -- checking out of this season. With Miami's suffocating defense forcing turnover after turnover, resulting in one runout dunk or alley-oop or transition 3-pointer after another, this game and series were OVER.
I was making jokes on Twitter about Jason Kidd having his retirement press conference at Shaquille O'Neal's house Friday -- to kill two over-the-hill Hall of Famers with one media event. The Lakers' Ron Artest, on a bit of a Twitter rampage of his own lately, posted this beauty during the game: "If Dallas wins ... I'll run down Santa Monica with electrical shocks on my chest nipples."
That's how we all felt, more or less. Artest's tweet also reminded me for about the 15th time in these first two Finals games of something else: If only the Lakers were here, this would be so much better.
It took an unthinkable push in the final minutes by the Mavs, who closed out Miami's closers, LeBron James and Wade, to make all of those horrifying thoughts disappear. It took Dirk Nowitzki scoring the Mavs' final nine points, using his left hand -- injured middle finger and all -- to twice drive for left-handed layups, including the game-winning basket with 3.6 seconds left.
It took Miami playing Nowitzki straight up and failing to use the foul it had to give on that possession -- "I made a move and the foul never came," Dirk said -- to send this series to Dallas for a reason other than the Heat's coronation. The coaches told the players in the huddle to foul Nowitzki before he made his move on Chris Bosh, but it was a "mental breakdown on us," Wade said.
The Mavs were surprised, too. They had two plays called for the occasion, and Chandler said, "We expected them to foul."
"It's easy to say it right now," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You know, we're aware of it. We talked about it. We've been in that situation before. We didn't use the foul."
It was all part of a stunning collapse, and another remarkable comeback for Dallas on this playoff run. They had come back from double-digit deficits on the Lakers' floor and in Oklahoma City. But these were the Heat, the presumed champions, who hadn't lost at home all postseason (9-0) and who were having their way with a Dallas team that looked incapable in every way of beating them once -- never mind three consecutive times at home.
"I don't think they look at themselves as invincible," Kidd said. "I just think they look at themselves as a very good team that's playing extremely well right now."
In the timeout after Wade hit that 3-pointer, and proceeded to pose with his right arm in the air and chest-bump LeBron in front of the Dallas bench, Rick Carlisle mustered something few NBA coaches have in them. He gave up control, telling his team there would be no offensive plays called the rest of the game.
"We figured down 15 with seven minutes left, we better make our final push now or we're going to go back 2-0," Chandler said. "We said we're going to get stops and we're just going to play basketball. I said, 'Kidd, Jet [Jason Terry], you guys take care of the show, and me and Dirk are going to set screens.' We were able to get some great looks out of that. Maybe we should just say that from the jump."
Maybe they should. Or maybe they should just give the ball to Dirk at the end and let him go to work. The momentum has shifted, as it often does when the road team wins one of the first two in the 2-3-2 format of the Finals. The onus, too, has shifted to the Heat, who now must redraw their plan of attack for Nowitzki.
"Look, I played with [Larry] Bird for three years when he was the best player in the world," Carlisle said. "Guys like that don't feel pain right now. You play, and if you're feeling pain, you make yourself numb so you don't feel pain. You've got to play, and you've got to be a warrior."
Since the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 format for the Finals in 1985, only two teams -- the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat -- have won the middle three games at home. The Mavs can still win this series without becoming the third. We still have a series -- and a season -- because they chipped away Thursday night at the notion that the Heat were unbeatable.
The Mavs saved themselves, and saved all of us from something nobody wanted to see: a boring, drama-less waltz to a title for a team that will now have to work for it.
"They're too talented," Kidd said afterward in the locker room. And what he meant was, they're too talented to let such an epic collapse affect them.
The other way to read it -- that they're too talented to lose -- is no longer true.