MIAMI, June 13 (Ticker) - A heroic performance by Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat's season hanging in the precarious balance of Gary Payton making a shot and Dirk Nowitzki missing one.

Wade scored a playoff career-high 42 points and singlehandedly fueled a series-saving comeback as the Heat rallied for a 98-96 victory over the stunned Dallas Mavericks that made the NBA Finals interesting again.

NBA TV highlights from
Mavericks-Heat:
Play
Shaquille O'Neal had 16 points and 11 rebounds for Miami, which kept AmericanAirlines Arena "white-hot" instead of raising the white flag - barely. Erasing a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit, the Heat closed the series to 2-1 and have a chance to draw even in Game 4 on Thursday.

"I'm absolutely without a doubt a true believer," Heat coach Pat Riley said. "I've been around players 40 years. I know when they look around and they look up and they say, 'This doesn't look very good.' But you've just got to keep trying."

"We're a very strong-willed team," Wade said. "We all believe in each other. When we're down and out, we always feel we can come back."

The Heat had some help from the Mavericks, who survived a poor fourth quarter after building a big lead in Game 2 but were burned this time. A couple of stops from a virtually insurmountable 3-0 lead, Dallas managed one basket in the final five minutes as its playoff cool evaporated in the humidity.

"We couldn't really get anything done down the stretch on both ends of the floor," Nowitzki said. "Maybe we started to relax too early or celebrate; I don't know what it was. But we didn't defend them the way we did before and we couldn't get anything to drop. So it's obviously frustrating."

A game that rocked on a seesaw through the first three quarters finally leveled at 95-95 in the waning moments before tilting eastward. The slumping Payton's jumper with 9.3 seconds left - his only shot of the game - snapped a 95-95 tie.

"Probably everyone in our stadium was thinking that we had lost this game, but you see what happened," Payton said. "We had a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks in this season, and that's what we're so accustomed to doing."

A free throw by Nowitzki - who has been nearly automatic from the line in the postseason - bounced out with 3.4 seconds to go.

Battling foul trouble, fatigue, a sore left knee and the stigma of a possible sweep, Wade scored 12 points in the final six-plus minutes, taking over a game the Heat absolutely had to have.

"Incredible, just the heart that he has," Riley said. "He just rises to the occasion."

"He had the whole game going tonight, inside and out," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. "He really hurt with his penetration tonight. He was really persistent."

Clearly not himself in the first two games in Dallas, Wade made 14-of-26 shots and 13-of-18 free throws while adding 13 rebounds in 43 minutes, yet still somehow saved his best for last.

"No matter how many minutes I played, I had the legs at the end to be able to go down there and finish and make plays happen," Wade said. "I said going into this game that this is the best I was going to feel all series. Don't I sound better?"

"(He) took over the game the last five, six minutes," O'Neal said. "That's what a player of his caliber does. He's the type of player that you just let him go and let him do his thing."

Wade answered two jumpers by Jason Terry with a tough banker and a driving three-point play, cutting the deficit to 89-81 with 5:36 remaining and starting the comeback.

"I'm always trying to be aggressive, trying to do the right thing," Wade said.

"Tonight he really had it on his mind that he was going to be aggressive getting to the basket, especially in that fourth quarter," Terry said. "He really, really took over."

After a 3-pointer by James Posey, Wade was at it again with a pull-up jumper and a hanging drive that made it 91-88 with 3:36 left. Nowitzki, who scored 30 points, answered with a pair from the line.

O'Neal, who was 2-of-16 from the line in the first two games, stunned everyone by making a pair. Wade followed with a corner jumper, and a steal and two free throws by Udonis Haslem - who had missed his first four foul shots - gave Miami a 94-93 lead with 1:03 to go.

"I just went back to the way I used to shoot when I was a youngster, when I was a good player," said O'Neal, who had his best game of the series.

Posey added a free throw, but Devin Harris tied it as he streaked past a tiring Wade for a layup with 33 seconds left. Off a scramble situation, Payton headfaked Josh Howard, stepped inside the arc and drained an 18-footer.

"They was rotating," Payton said. "I took one dribble, kept dribbling and shot the ball. You don't think about it; just go up and shoot the ball and whatever happens, happens."

Nowitzki easily got to the basket and was fouled. A clutch foul shooter throughout the postseason, he made the first but shockingly missed the second. Wade rebounded and split two free throws, and Nowitzki's lob attempt for Howard was broken up by Wade, still with spring in his step.

"It was just a free throw that I usually make," said Nowitzki, who had made 26 of his first 28 free throws in the series. "I don't know what happened. I just shot it a little strong."

Antoine Walker and Jason Williams scored 12 points each and Haslem added eight and 10 rebounds for Miami, which held a 49-34 advantage on the glass. The Heat have won the battle of the boards twice from the Mavericks, who were not outrebounded through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Howard scored 21 points - none in the fourth quarter - and Terry added 16 for Dallas, which erased an 11-point halftime deficit with a 34-point third quarter. Erick Dampier had 14 points and nine boards.

In the first half, O'Neal and Wade looked like totally different players and powered Miami to a 52-43 lead as Dallas endured another slow start and uncharacteristically was pounded, 30-16, on the boards.

Coming off the worst performance of his postseason career, O'Neal was remarkably active. He had three buckets, a steal at midcourt that led to a layup by Walker and a bounce pass to Walker for a layup as Miami opened a 15-9 lead.

Attacking the basket, Wade shot 14 free throws and scored 21 points in the first half. He had 13 in the first quarter, including a drive that made it 29-21.

"Shaq told us, 'Don't settle for jump shots. Take the ball to the basket strong,'" Wade said.

Nowitzki, who missed his first seven shots but finished 9-of-20 from the field, capped an 8-0 spurt with a jumper that pulled the Mavericks within 33-31. Dallas finally caught Miami at 40-40 on a 3-pointer by Howard with 4:32 left before halftime.

O'Neal sat down less than a minute later, but Williams had a jumper and a 3-pointer in a 12-3 burst that ended the half. Still in attack mode, Wade contributed five free throws.

The Mavericks found some energy at the outset of the second half and surged to the lead with a 12-2 run highlighted by 3-pointers from Howard and Nowitzki. Another 3-pointer by Nowitzki pushed the margin to 66-62 before Dampier came alive beneath the basket with five points, giving Dallas a 77-68 lead entering the final period.

"In the third quarter, we finally started making some shots and moved the ball pretty well," Nowitzki said. "Our defense picked up a little bit and (We) got a nice little lead."