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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Only one way for LeBron to help Heat -- go stop Nowitzki


Hate Mail: Did somebody say something about LeBron?

DALLAS -- This is a series that shouldn't be a series, but here we are. The NBA Finals are tied 2-2 entering Game 5, and it's not tied because the Dallas Mavericks are equal to Miami. They're not. Don't get huffy on me, Mavs fans, because I love your team, respect your coach and think your arena atmosphere is among the best in the NBA.

But the Mavs are as star-oriented as the Heat. More so, actually, because the Heat ostensibly have three stars to do the heavy lifting. Dallas has just one: Dirk Nowitzki. And he has lifted the Mavs onto his back and carried them to where we are. Tied at two games each entering Game 5.

LeBron James is uniquely suited to guard the singularly talented Dirk Nowitzki for the Heat. (Getty Images)  
LeBron James is uniquely suited to guard the singularly talented Dirk Nowitzki for the Heat. (Getty Images)  
Which is why LeBron James has to defend Dirk Nowitzki. Not all game, because Nowitzki isn't hammering the Heat all game. But he is doing it in the fourth quarter. Unquestionably, irrevocably, overwhelmingly -- Dirk Nowitzki is bludgeoning the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter.

And yet there sits LeBron, one of the most gifted defensive players in the NBA, defending someone else. Who else? Anyone else. It doesn't matter who. It matters who he's not defending, and he's not defending Nowitzki. That task is left to Udonis Haslem, who isn't a bad defender -- he's not. As far as forwards go, Haslem is a savvy veteran who would be effective defending most players in the NBA.

But Nowitzki isn't most players. In fact, there isn't another player like him -- ever. The NBA has never had a guy that tall who could shoot that well from that distance. And because Nowitzki also can drive exceptionally well for a man his size and finish with either hand near the rim, he is a dangerous scorer from anywhere once he gets within 25 feet of the basket.

If the NBA were an ocean, Nowitzki would be a great white shark. The perfect predator.

But James is Jaws too. There has never been another one of him in this league, and while there might be some day, I swear it won't happen in my lifetime. Physically, LeBron James is that far ahead of the curve. He's listed at 6-feet-8 and 250 pounds, but people within the Cleveland Cavaliers organization told me he was more like 6-9, 270.

And he hasn't gotten any smaller.

Haslem isn't as strong, quick or explosive as James, and he's listed at 6-8 and 235 pounds. So on paper he's smaller than James, and the eyeball test is even more revealing. James is significantly bigger than Haslem. And James is better on defense, too. He's better than just about anybody in the NBA, given that he has made the All-Defensive first team three years in a row.

James takes pride in his defense. Blew up my question after Game 3 when I told him he was "shrinking" in the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals by telling me he was a "two-way player." That I was "concentrating on one side of the floor. ... You should watch the film again and see what I did defensively. You can ask me a better question tomorrow."

Well said. Point to LeBron. But the question for today, then, is this: Why isn't he guarding Nowitzki in the fourth quarter?

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If he's a defensive stopper -- and he is -- why is he guarding Jason Terry or Shawn Marion when it's Nowitzki who is singlehandedly making this a competitive series? It's not like James is conserving his energy for the offensive end. He's listless and ineffective, and anyway, Dwyane Wade is carrying the Heat's scoring load. On offense, he has been the Heat's version of Nowitzki. James has been the Heat's version of Jason Kidd. A facilitator. Nothing more.

So why isn't LeBron expending more energy on defense, and defending the one guy -- the only guy -- keeping Dallas in this series? I put the question to Nowitzki and James on Wednesday, and only one of them seemed to think LeBron-on-Dirk would make a difference.

And it wasn't LeBron.

Said Nowitzki: "We all know if he wants to be, he's one of the best defenders in this league -- because he can guard multiple positions, probably [point guard] through [center] if he wants to. He's long, he's strong, he's quick. So he's a great defender. ... Usually the team that loses has more of an edge, makes some adjustments with the coaches. So we've got to be ready for anything."

But LeBron on Dirk? I asked LeBron, and he gave me a big meh.

Here was the exchange:

Me: "LeBron, you're a two-way player, of course. At what point in the fourth quarter do you say, 'One guy on their team is killing us. I'm going to go guard that guy.' And the guy is Dirk."

LeBron: "I don't think -- what do you mean? We have matchups. We have schemes. It's not one guy that's hurting us. I think Tyson Chandler had an unbelievable game last night. Offensive rebounds, he had nine offensive rebounds. Dirk made shots. He can make shots against anyone. He can make shots against me. He can make shots against anyone in this league. Just try to make it hard on him. We did that."

Hard hasn't been hard enough, because Dirk Nowitzki is killing the Heat in the fourth quarter. It's every game. In Game 2 Miami blew a 15-point lead in the final seven minutes because Nowitzki was scoring the Mavs' final nine points, including the winning basket. Against whom? Against Chris Bosh. I don't care that Haslem wasn't defending Nowitzki in those final seconds. I'm still amazed it wasn't LeBron James.

In Game 3, Miami squandered a six-point lead in the last three minutes as Nowitzki was scoring the Mavs' final 12 points, including a bucket that tied it at 86. Nowitzki missed a 20-footer at the buzzer for the tie, but let's not give Haslem credit -- unless you also want to blame Haslem for all the shots Nowitzki made. My point is, Haslem didn't stop Nowitzki from scoring at the end. Nowitzki missed. Simple as that. He got the shot he wanted, a shot he had been making, because Haslem was powerless to prevent it.

And then it happened again in Game 4! Sorry for the exclamation mark there. It's not the most sophisticated form of writing, I know. But I'm in disbelief that the Heat allowed Nowitzki -- after losing Game 2 and nearly losing Game 3 -- to do the same thing in Game 4. But they did. And he did.

Nowitzki had missed 15 of his previous 17 shots, and Miami led by seven midway through the fourth quarter, when Nowitzki became Nowitzki. He scored six straight Dallas points to get the Mavs within 78-75. Did Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dial up a defensive change? Nope. Same Haslem..

Same Nowitzki.

Dallas was rolling, getting buckets from Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry, and then Nowitzki made two free throws with 2:16 left for an 82-78 Mavs lead.

Defensive change? Nope. Same Haslem.

Same Nowitzki.

With 14.4 seconds left he drove on Haslem for a basket that made it 84-81, and after another exchange of possessions, that three-point margin is how the game ended: 86-83.

Meanwhile, LeBron James was defending Terry. Or Marion. Honestly, I don't know who he was defending, because I wasn't watching that guy. I was watching Nowitzki, just like almost everyone else in the building. All of us knew that Nowitzki was going to win or lose this game for the Mavs.

So why doesn't Spoelstra know? Why doesn't LeBron know?

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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