Posted Jun 7 2011 7:42PM - Updated Jun 8 2011 6:57AM
DALLAS -- Years from now, when Dirk Nowitzki's exploits as a Dallas Maverick have faded and are just old stories being passed around among folks in this town, the details from Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals will be as foggy as Nowitzki's equilibrium was on the court here late Tuesday night.
Battling a relentless Dwyane Wade, a wicked sinus infection and a fever that had his temperature hovering around 101 all day, Nowitzki came through in the clutch yet again to drag the Mavericks out of dust and even this series at 2-2 heading into what has the makings of an epic Game 5 here Thursday.
Nowitzki's driving layup with 14.9 seconds to play and two free throws from Jason Terry with 6.7 seconds left provided the winning margin in the Mavericks' season-saving 86-83 win before a spellbound sellout crowd at American Airlines Center.
They combined for 18 of the Mavericks' final 21 points in a game-closing run that saw them outscore the Heat by 12 points in the final 10 minutes to claw their way back into this game and this series. They rallied from a nine-point deficit late to steal their second game in three tries from a Heat team that once again lost control of the action when it mattered most.
And Nowitzki, dragging his ragged body up and down the court when it was clear he wasn't himself -- remember, he was already playing with a torn tendon in his left middle finger -- took over when it mattered most.
"He's one of the greatest ever," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "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."
Dirk Fever spread throughout the building after the game. Someone even uttered the name Michael Jordan, whose cosmic, flu-ridden performance in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against Utah stands as the ultimate tough-guy show in recent Finals history.
"Wow, a Jordanism," Terry said. "Really? I wouldn't quite call it that. But hitting that shot down the stretch was key. It was a similar situation in Game 3. Same one in Game 2. Iso, free throw line, took it to the rack, got it done, big time."
Nowitzki, coughing, sniffling and wheezing his way through the postgame interview session, didn't want to go the Jordan route either. For starters, he didn't collapse into Terry's arms at the finish, the way Jordan did into Scottie Pippen's after his mercurial 38-point, seven-rebound, five-assist, three-steal and one-block performance pushed the Bulls to a 3-2 edge in that series.
His temperature wasn't the 103 that was being tossed around during the game. Nowitzki walked off the floor on his own. The physical struggles, though, were obvious. He didn't participate in shootaround Tuesday morning. He even missed a free throw with 3:52 to play in the third quarter, snapping a streak of 39 straight made dating back to Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City.
"It's just a little sinus infection," Nowitzki said, his voice cracking repeatedly while he spoke. "Hopefully I'll get some sleep and take some meds and be ready to go on Thursday [for Game 5]."
The Jordan comparisons weren't that far off. Nowitzki was visibly weakened by whatever it is that's ailing him. He had just eight points at halftime and needed every bit of energy and production Terry and the rest of the Mavericks' supporting cast could provide.
And the Mavericks were forced to pull out all the stops for this one, what with Nowitzki nursing that fever, backup center Brendan Haywood struggling to play with a right hip flexor and the bench having spent the 48 hours prior to Game 4 as a punching bag for pundits from around the globe.
Carlisle tweaked his starting lineup, inserting J.J. Barea for DeShawn Stevenson and then getting monster efforts from both guys. Barea's eight points, four assists and three rebounds helped make up for a scoreless, four-turnover performance from Jason Kidd. Stevenson was clutch, nailing three of his seven shots, all from beyond the 3-point line, and finished with 11 points off the bench as he and Terry outscored the Heat reserves 28-15.
Tyson Chandler battled the Heat inside without much help, finishing with 16 rebounds and 13 points while playing a grueling 43 minutes in the mosh pit that was the middle of the lane on both ends of the floor.
"We're a tough ball club," Carlisle said. "We've been tough all year. We don't have the appearance of a physically bruising-type team, but this is as mentally tough a group as I've ever had, because they just ... what they stand for, how they play together and how they trust. It can be difficult, because Miami has some guys that make some breathtaking plays. Just to keep playing through that and to keep playing through situations where you are missing some shots you normally make, hey there's some frustration out there. But they stuck together. They kept their energy up. And they found a way."
It always helps when Nowitzki is leading the charge, fever or no fever.
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