Posted Jun 3 2011 9:48AM
MIAMI -- Just when the Heat and their fans braced for the sort of premature celebration that ushered in this Big Three era last July, Dirk Nowitzki gave all of Miami the finger. Roll.
What we saw Thursday night was the trademark of a great player, once again, refusing to be betrayed by his body. Just as Isiah Thomas pogo-sticked his way on one leg in 1988 against the Lakers, and Michael Jordan sniffled around the court in 1997 against the Jazz, the 2011 NBA Finals offered something almost as dramatic. It gave us Nowitzki capping a stunning finish by dropping a layup going left, the ball gently rolling off a torn finger with 3.6 seconds left, the Mavericks fighting back from the brink to seize control of the series.
And that was preceded by a lefty layup that tied the score, then a 3-point sucker punch with 26 seconds left that temporarily gave the Mavericks a 93-90 lead.
"I've got all the faith in the world in him," said Tyson Chandler.
Great players find a way, as Nowitzki did in the closing freeze-frame moments of Game 2 when he put up the biggest shots, twice with his left, and shut up the building.
"I played with (Larry) Bird when he was the best player in the world," said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. "Guys like that don't feel pain right now. If you're feeling pain, you make yourself numb."
Actually, Nowitzki made Miami numb all over. It was Mavericks 95, Heat 93 for the final, but the score you need to know about is Heat 88, Mavericks 73. That 15-point lead was courtesy of Dwyane Wade, who swished a 3-pointer from in front of the Dallas bench and left his right wrist limp in the air, striking a shooter's pose with seven minutes and change left. He was joined quickly by LeBron James and together they bounced in Dallas' personal space. It annoyed the Dallas players, who thought Wade was showing them up. It looked as though Wade was waving bye-bye, to the Mavs and any fan who wanted to beat traffic home.
And why not? The Heat spent much of the playoffs making a habit of closing out games, and besides, Nowitzki had one more basket than Mike Bibby at that point. So, yeah. Strike that pose and strike up the band while you're at it.
"Just watching them celebrate like that was disheartening for us," Jason Terry said.
It was precisely the kind of debilitating moment made for someone like Nowitzki. After ripping a tendon in the middle finger of his guide hand two nights earlier, Nowitzki put himself through a blizzard of shooting sessions while wearing a soft wrap. He sank shots effortlessly in the hours prior to Game 2, but the true test would come later, when Miami applied some defense.
"I thought it wasn't going to bother me, and it didn't," he said. "I was able to get a good grip on the ball."
It didn't look that way. Dirk struggled, sometimes mightily. He missed seven of his first 10 shots, easily his poorest half of basketball in a brilliant postseason. He never did any damage or caused problems for the Heat, at least at first. There was no indication a smashing finish was forthcoming. The Heat were more concerned with Marion. And the most accurate shooter on the floor was Bibby. Dirk? He was hurt, as some of his teammates suspected.
"He wouldn't admit it, even if he was," Terry said. "He was going to do whatever it took for us to get the win."
And the Heat defense did whatever it took to make that happen. Miami left Nowitzki wide open for the 3-pointer, perhaps believing (wrongly) that Dirk wasn't the most dangerous Maverick on the floor.
And then, after Mario Chalmers tied it up 93-93, the Heat refused to double Dirk. They dared to give Bosh solo duty, a risky proposition even for a decent defender. Miami was more concerned with Dirk finding a teammate. Imagine that.
"At the time," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra explained, "they had carved us up enough on that, we left some open shooters and they made us pay. We tried to do it with our normal defense."
Well, here's the problem: Great players rarely decline the chance to win games, and Dirk certainly didn't. With Bosh concerned with giving up the outside shot, Dirk took a few dribbles and put on a nifty spin move worthy of an Olympic figure skater. He curled to the basket and extended with his left hand. His layup was gentle, like your grandmother's touch.
"That was a big play," Dirk admitted.
That was ballgame.
There are lessons learned, of course. One: Do not celebrate, or give the impression of celebrating, any lead on a Mavericks team that ripped the hearts out of Oklahoma City in a similar situation just a week ago.
And two: Throw doubt in Dirk's direction at your own peril. But do throw a double team at the moment of truth.
"There's nothing he hasn't seen," Carlisle said.
And in Game 2, nothing he couldn't do, torn finger or not.
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