DALLAS -- The Mavericks were going to need a hero shot to win this game, to fend off a championship onslaught from Dwyane Wade and a Miami defense that was doing things that shouldn't be possible. Dallas was going to need a big shot from the big German, a bailout from Dirk Nowitzki in the closing seconds of Game 3.
Moments earlier, Nowitzki had been walled off by Udonis Haslem, who acted like a pulling guard on a goal-line play to free up Chris Bosh for the go-ahead jumper with 39.6 seconds left. On the next possession, it was Haslem guarding Nowitzki at the elbow, and Wade swooping in like a condor from the weak side to force a turnover. And so it was going to come down to Dirk with the ball in his hands in the final seconds, the Mavs' Big One trying to hold off the Big Three.
"The look with four seconds to go," Nowitzki said, "I thought it was as good as you can get it."
Nowitzki's shot from his sweet spot, against single coverage from Haslem, bounced tantalizingly off the rim -- and took the Mavs' best chance of winning this series with it. The Heat managed to avoid getting Dirked for the second successive game, holding on for an 88-86 victory Sunday night to take an historically commanding 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Game 4 will be Tuesday night in Dallas, with the Mavs looking to avoid becoming the 12th consecutive team to trail 2-1 in the Finals and lose the series under the 2-3-2 format adopted in 1985.
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"It's basically a must-win situation on Tuesday," said Nowitzki, who scored 15 of his 34 points in the fourth -- including the Mavs' final 12. "We can't go down 3-1."
They can, and will if they continue to turn the ball over -- allowing 19 points off 14 turnovers in Game 3 -- and continue to insist on playing from behind. The Heat led by 14 in the second quarter, and built a 13-point lead in the third.
"We can't go down by 15 all the time and battle back," Nowitzki said. " ... We can't always get in a deep hole like that."
They did it in Game 2, coming back from 15 down in the final 7:14 to steal home-court advantage with Nowitzki's driving, left-handed layup against Bosh in the closing seconds. On Sunday night, it was too much Wade -- who scored 29, including seven of Miami's final nine points in a breathtakingly assertive performance -- and too much Miami defense for Nowitzki to reach into his deep well of hero shots again.
"He's made that shot before, and he will make it again," LeBron James said. "It just rimmed out for him. It was a huge stop for our team."
A huge stop, and a moment that will go down as the one that turned this championship hunt -- 11 months in the making -- decidedly in the Heat's favor.
So many months ago, when Pat Riley pulled off the biggest free-agent coup in NBA history, you thought you would see Miami arrive at a defining moment like this. But it would be against the Celtics or against Kobe Bryant's Lakers. It would be Kobe trying to hold off Wade and LeBron, fighting for every last inch of the territory he had spent 15 years carving out on stages like this.
But here was Nowitzki, the game's most underappreciated superstar, with the ball on his fingertips in the snapshot of time that would tilt the momentum of the Finals. And on the other side, it wasn't LeBron -- the Chosen One, who managed only three field-goal attempts and one basket in the fourth quarter -- but Wade, the star for Miami in the 2006 Finals against Dallas, going shot-for-shot and stop-for-stop with Nowitzki.
In a three-point game, 81-78 Miami with 4:56 left, Wade took over. He did what immortals do in championship moments. Wade hit a 3-pointer and a 20-footer, then caused Nowitzki to botch his first chance to tie the game by leaving Shawn Marion and racing over to force a turnover with 30.2 seconds left.
"I still actually kind of wanted to shoot it," said Nowitzki, whose pass for Marion sailed into the seats. "But I think Wade would have blocked it from the side."
He's that good. Miami's defense is that good -- so sound, so athletic, so active, that they make you walk away not even realizing what happened. And this is what the Mavs did in their locker room Sunday night, trying to find ways to blame themselves for all the turnovers their opponent caused.
This is what the Heat do to you. They make you delusional.
"They've got three big guns, so to speak," said Jason Terry, who for the second time in three games failed to score a point in the fourth quarter. "Everybody else nullifies themselves. And for us, we've got to take care of the ball. That's been the theme the last three games why we've had big deficits. If we take care of the ball, I've got no doubt in my mind that we'll win this series."
Someone at that point should've hit the Jet with Victor Maitland's line from <em>Beverly Hills Cop</em>: "Obviously, you have no idea whom you're dealing with."
"If we throw the ball to somebody who ain't even looking, I wouldn't call that athleticism or scrambling and getting after it," Terry said. "Eighty percent of these are unforced errors."
I don't know what the film will say about that, but I know what history will say about this. This was a Hall of Famer, the best-shooting big man ever, with the ball leaving his fingertips with a pivotal game in the Finals on the line. This was the ball rimming out, the momentum swinging to Miami, and a team using every weapon at its disposal to take the most important step yet in the championship chase that began in July.
"By any means necessary," Wade said afterward.
Frightening, but true.