DALLAS -- Fifteen shots and two makes. This was Dirk Nowitzki's night, the memory that would haunt him over a long summer that could last many, many months in the NBA. It would stay with him forever, really -- maybe his last, best chance at that elusive championship slipping away and nothing he could do about it.
He had come out and blitzed the Heat with three quick baskets to start Game 4 of the Finals, and nobody was the wiser. This wasn't the Michael Jordan flu game; let's just get that out of the way. This was not Jordan scoring 38 with the flu in Game 5 of the '97 Finals against Utah. But there was no mistaking what was happening here, an unmitigated nightmare for Dirk Nowitzki -- his and the Mavs' championship dreams crumbling in front of his eyes.
Shot after shot went up, and shot after shot clanged off the rim -- 2-for-15 since that flurry at the start. The culprit, we all learned, was a sinus infection and a 101-degree fever. His teammates learned of Dirk's plight at shootaround in the morning. There was no doubt he'd be out on the floor, but nobody knew what to expect once he got there.
"I don't think the flu or a cold is going to stop Dirk from playing," teammate DeShawn Stevenson said.
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Nowitzki got the ball in his high-post sweet spot -- just as he had at the end of Games 2 and 3. The first time, he'd beaten Chris Bosh to the rim and won the game with a left-handed layup -- torn tendon in his finger and all. On Sunday night, he'd missed a jumper over Udonis Haslem. Now, the outcome would be the difference between a 2-2 Finals and an all but insurmountable 3-1 deficit.
This time, Nowitzki sensed no double-team was coming again, and he drove to his right, toward the rim, and scooped the ball low off the glass -- before Dwyane Wade, who'd earlier blocked 7-footer Tyson Chandler at the rim in one of the best defensive plays you'll ever see in the Finals -- could get there. Wade, who'd forced Nowitzki to throw the ball away late in Game 3 before that final miss against Haslem, came soaring in from the weak side. By the time Wade's hand got there, the ball was already caroming off the glass and in -- finally, in, with 14.9 seconds left -- and Nowitzki had yanked the Finals away from Wade and put them back, for now, in his hands.
"I saw a little opening there, so I just went for it," said Nowitzki, whose driving layup was the dagger in the Mavericks' thrilling 86-83 victory that evened the Finals at 2-2. "They really played my left, which obviously the whole league does. So I was able to rip through and get to my right and finally finish a layup."
Finally, a breakthrough for Nowitzki, who finished with 21 points on 6-for-19 shooting. Finally, a clutch play in Game 4 from someone not named Wade.
"I'm just going to remember ... the effort for him just coming on the floor," Chandler said. "The average person, you know, has sick days and battling 100-something [fever], it's just tough to get out of bed. This guy is playing against the best athletes in the world."
Well, two of them, anyway. While Wade (32 points and an array of breathtaking defensive plays) and Bosh (24) were busy trying to put the Mavs in a hole they would never have climbed out of, LeBron James was having the worst playoff performance of his eight-year career: eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists -- his lowest-scoring game ever in the postseason.
James, the subject of a day-and-a-half of national debate about whether he was failing to live up to the championship moment before him, failed to score in the fourth quarter -- after scoring two in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Jason Terry, who'd questioned Monday whether James would be able to defend him for seven games, scored 17 off the bench, including eight in the fourth quarter after going scoreless in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
The Heat didn't score a basket after Wade's runout layup with 7:24 left, and nobody not named Wade scored a basket for Miami over the final 10:12.
"I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively," said James, who was 3-for-11 from the field in his first single-digit scoring game since taking his talents to South Beach.
Game 5 is Thursday night in Dallas, with the momentum of the series having shifted for the third time in as many games.
"The one thing about this series," Wade said, "you see no team is ever safe."
The Mavs weren't safe after Nowitzki's driving layup had given them an 84-81 lead. Miami inbounded the ball with 14.4 seconds left, and got it to Wade -- thereby making it a bad idea to foul right away. Wade gets off the floor so fast on his jump shot, and is so good at drawing contact, that Dallas would've been risking a disastrous three-shot foul or four-point play. So the Mavs let Wade drive for an uncontested dunk, making it 84-83 with nine seconds left.
Wade, the co-star of these Finals with Nowitzki, had one more chance with 6.7 seconds left. Miami inbounded the ball trailing 86-83, but Wade was off-balance as he fought around a screen and couldn't handle Mike Miller's pass. Wade leaped over the half-court line to save it, but all the Heat could get was a 28-footer from Miller that was way off.
"Obviously, I would love to have that play back," Wade said. "We would love to have a lot of plays back."
Four games in, it is clear who will bring this series home. It will be Wade and Nowitzki, the two best players on the floor, with James -- now publicly admitting to a crisis of aggression -- lurking as the one who could change it all if he snaps out of it. This is the time to rise to this moment, or live with regrets.
Nowitzki, sniffling through every sentence in his postgame news conference -- lounge-singer style, with microphone in hand -- experienced both Tuesday night.
"I'll be all right on Thursday," he said.
Thanks to him, the Mavs are all right, too.