Earl K. Sneed recaps Game 4 of the NBA Finals, as the Dallas Mavericks' depth made up for an ailing Dirk Nowitzki's off night to tie the series with the Miami Heat at 2-2 in the second of three straight games at the American Airlines Center.
DALLAS — For the first three games of the NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks’ supporting cast received plenty of criticism for not lending leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki enough assistance.
Tuesday night, with Mavericks trying to avoid falling in a 1-3 hole and Nowitzki knocked off his game while battling a fever due to a sinus infection, the team’s unsung heroes sent a resounding message to their critics, as the Dallas squad evened up the championship series against the Miami Heat at two games apiece with a 21-9 run to conclude a come-from-behind, 86-83 victory on the American Airlines Center floor.
"Obviously their supporting cast did a good job," Heat superstar Dwyane Wade said of the Mavericks' role players after suffering the loss. "They've been getting pounded by [the media] for the last 48 hours. So, there's a lot of pride. They came out and played well. They had a lot of different guys do a lot of good things."
Needing a spark of energy and a dose of instant offense, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle headed into Game 4 knowing that it was time to shake things up. And with his team looking to avoid a nearly insurmountable hole at the hands of the Heat, Carlisle made a change in his starting lineup, seating swingman DeShawn Stevenson in favor of reserve J.J. Barea to add the undersized guard’s ability to penetrate the lane to the first unit.
With the change in place and backup big man Brendan Haywood back from a one-game hiatus with a strained right hip flexor, the Mavericks took the floor looking to rebound from Sunday night’s 88-86 defeat while also trying to even the series in the middle matchup of three straight in Dallas.
The strategy appeared to work early on in the opening quarter, with point guard Jason Kidd drawing the defensive assignment on two-time MVP LeBron James while forward Shawn Marion slid to Wade. Meanwhile, Nowitzki went right back to work after his 34-point, 11-rebound performance in Game 3, scoring the game's first six points with an array of jumpers before his counterpart, Dallas native Chris Bosh, matched him with a 6-0 spurt of his own.
Nowitzki then got support from sixth man Jason Terry off the Dallas bench while Stevenson relieved Marion, but the Heat’s ability to control the offensive glass and force the Mavericks into turnovers — coupled with a technical foul call on Carlisle for arguing with officiating — kept the visiting Miami team in the game, with the two squads heading into the second stanza tied at 21-all.
Despite shooting just 29 percent in the first period compared to Dallas’ 50 percent, the Heat’s nine offensive rebounds made up for an inability to make shots through 12 minutes of play. The second quarter would be more of the same.
Although he was able to get into the lane at will, Barea had a hard time finishing once he got close to the basket early in the second quarter. Simultaneously, the Heat capitalized off the missed opportunities, opening the period on a 7-0 run. But Stevenson’s trifecta of 3-pointers stopped the bleeding, trimming the Heat’s lead to just two before Nowitzki tied the game at 34-34 with a vintage fadeaway jumper over Joel Anthony midway through the period.
"[Stevenson] stayed with it," Terry said of his teammate after being lifted from the starting lineup. "His confidence was there. He knew where his shots were going to come, and the defensive job he's doing in this series is very underrated. He's having to guard both [James and Wade] for the majority of the time, and I think he's holding his own. He's doing an outstanding job."
"He's a pro," Carlisle added with praise for Stevenson. "He just kept himself ready all year. The 3's he knocked down in the first half were huge, because we were fighting through some deficits. And he was one of the guys that set the tone defensively for us."
The Mavs continued to ride the momentum for most of the first half, taking the lead on a Terry jumper followed by the star reserve’s transition feed to a trailing Marion. But a Wade and Bosh-led spurt to close the half gave the Heat a 47-45 edge entering the break, as the Mavs headed to the locker room looking to come back ready to attack in the final 24 minutes of play.
With James held to just four points at the midway point, the Heat turned to the other two components of their Big Three, with Bosh leading all scorers with 16 first-half points while Wade pitched in 13 points. Stevenson’s 11 points on 3-for-4 shooting from behind the 3-point arc paced the Mavs, with Nowitzki and Terry combining to add 17 points to the cause. Meanwhile, the Dallas team finished the half getting outrebounded by the Heat, 24-18, while also being bettered by the visiting Miami squad in the shooting department, 45.2 percent to 43.2 percent.
Battling triple-digit temperatures, Nowitzki came out of the intermission looking to attack after shooting 4-for-10 in the first 24 minutes of action. But with the 7-footer clearly off his game due to the illness, Barea and Marion took charge, with the young lead guard’s penetration breaking down the Heat’s defense while Marion scored at the rim.
Marion continued to take over the scoring responsibilities while Nowitzki battled his ailments, with a 26-for-26 stretch from the foul line in the Finals series and 37 straight overall coming to a close for the 10-time All-Star in the period. But a thunderous alley-oop connection from James to Wade not only sucked some of the air out of the American Airlines Center, it also set the Heat up with a 69-65 edge heading to the fourth quarter.
The Heat then benefited from a six-point swing to start the final period, with Stevenson missing on a corner 3 while sharpshooter Mike Miller cashed in from the same spot at the other end of the floor. It would lead to 5-0 spurt, as Miami grabbed its largest lead of the night at 74-65 with 10:11 remaining for the Mavs to respond.
"I think it didn't look good there in the fourth quarter when we were down nine," Nowitzki confessed, "but energy and defense really picked us up. Didn't shoot the ball well, again, had some good looks there in the fourth, but our defense grinded it out."
Not to be forgotten, however, was Terry, whose back-to-back scores gave the Mavericks a lift while looking to stem a comeback attempt. At the same time, Nowitzki began his attack on the Miami defense, looking to answer Wade’s end-to-end play — using a spectacular block on center Tyson Chandler which led to his own layup on offense — for the Heat.
But it would be Terry that would give the Mavs a 79-78 lead after a defensive stop and long outlet feed from Stevenson, as the former Sixth Man of the Year exploited his matchup with James to put his team in front, before Chandler continued a growing run with a 1-for-2 trip at the foul line to put the Mavericks up a deuce with 4:36 remaining.
"Being aggressive, looking to attack instead of settling for the jump shot," Terry said when describing his play down the stretch. "[James'] length obviously is going to bother me if I shoot it in his face. It's going to be contested. So, percentages on those shots are going to go down. But if I can get in the paint and draw the defense and then make the pass or make the shot, then that's going to be advantages for us. That's something I looked to do tonight."
The spurt would conclude at 17-4 with Nowitzki at the line and the Mavs in the penalty with 2:16 left. But the Mavericks weren’t out of the woods yet, with Kidd sending Wade to the line, where the ’06 Finals MVP attempted to tie the game with 30.1 seconds left on the clock.
However, after making the first, Wade found all rim on the second stroke, with the Mavericks grabbing possession of the ball and calling timeout with 29.3 seconds left to close the door. Out of the timeout, the ball went to Nowitzki as he patiently attacked Heat big man Udonis Haslem, before battling through the fever to score on a drive to his right to put the Mavs up three with 14.4 seconds left.
"You know, this is the Finals. You're going to leave it out there. Like I said earlier in the series ... it's June. We've been playing on a high level for eight, nine months. So, everybody has a little something going, and this is the Finals. You have to go out there and compete and try your best for your team. So, that's what I did," Nowitzki said of the final sequence.
"He's one of the greatest ever," Carlisle proclaimed of his star player. "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. It's not easy, because teams deny him the ball. And in those situations, you know, Jason Terry has been one of the best fourth-quarter players in the league for a number of years, and Kidd's experience. ... And generally, we want to play through Dirk as much as we can."
But again Wade answered, driving straight to the hoop for a slam with 9.0 seconds on the clock, forcing Carlisle to call the Mavs’ last timeout. Looking to finish the Heat off, the ball was inbounded to Terry, who nailed a pair of clutch foul shots after being sent to the line with 6.7 seconds left.
Still, the Heat had an opportunity to answer, but Wade nearly fumbled the ball into the backcourt before saving it and finding Miller for a desperation 3 that sailed past the rim as time expired to even the series at 2-2, after the Mavericks outscored Miami in the fourth period, 21-14.
Despite battling the illness and struggling en route to a 6-for-19 shooting night, Nowitzki finished with a team-high 21 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Marion pitched in 16 points on 7-for-12 from the floor, while Chandler also registered a double-double with his 13 points and 16 boards to help the Mavs' supporting cast make up for Nowitzki's sluggishness at the offensive end.
“I just took the [criticism] personally, because this is the Finals, and I’m going to give it all every second I’m out there. When I saw the man [Nowitzki] walking today, he was barely able to talk. I knew I had to have a big night. I just told myself what I can do that I haven’t been doing of late. And I felt like I can get out and run, open things up, get some screen-and-rolls and open myself up on the glass,” Chandler said of his big night.
Off the Dallas bench, Terry posted 17 points (eight in the fourth quarter) despite connecting on just 6-of-15 from the floor, while Stevenson’s 11 points on 3-of-7 from behind the 3-point line all came in the first half.
Wade finished as the high-point man with his 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting, while Bosh added 24 of his own. But no other Heat player reached double figures, including James, who totaled a career playoff-low eight points on 3-of-11 from the floor despite also grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
"Definitely didn't play great offensively," James admitted. "I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively, not staying out of rhythm offensively the whole game."
The Heat ended the game outshooting the Mavs, 42.7 percent to 39.7 percent, while also collecting a 44-41 rebounding advantage to combat Chandler’s monster night on the glass. But the Mavericks took full advantage of the Heat’s 15 turnovers, flipping the script in what has been a theme in the series favoring Miami and turning the giveaways into 18 points at the other end, as the visitors racked up 12 points on Dallas’ 11 total miscues.
And with the game also featuring 15 ties and 12 different lead changes, the Mavericks’ 28-15 advantage in bench scoring became even more crucial, as Terry and Stevenson alone outdueled the Heat’s reserves.
“Look, everybody has to be ready, and our game has to be a team game,” Carlisle concluded. “We’re not going to outrun or outjump these guys, but we’ve got to play a sound game, we’ve got to play a persistent game. It was tough. We had a lot of shots that were there that didn’t go tonight. But the guys kept believing, they kept battling, and then the defense in the fourth held us. And we’re able to get out of here alive.”
The Mavericks will now head into Thursday night’s Game 5 at home looking to continue the momentum of the all-important win and hoping to have a healthy Nowitzki back and ready to go as they bid for a 3-2 series lead before it shifts back to Miami.
"There's no long-term," Nowitzki said of the illness. "I'll be alright on Thursday. It's a little sinus infection. Hopefully I'll get some sleep tonight, take some meds and be ready on Thursday. ... Obviously, we would love to get Game 5 here. Don't want to go to Miami down 3-2, knowing they have two chances to close us out. Big game Thursday."
Note: The Mavericks will host Game 5 at the American Airlines Center on Thursday night, in a game that tip off at 8 p.m. CT and air nationally on ABC. Tickets for the Finals are on sale now. Visit Mavs.com for details or call 214-747-MAVS (6287).
All of the Mavs home Finals games at American Airlines Center will be a MAVS ROYAL BLUE-OUT!
Every seat at the American Airlines Center will have a MAVS ROYAL BLUE playoff T-shirt placed in it. We need for you and every Mavs fan to show their Mavs pride. So, dress ready to put on your MAVS ROYAL BLUE playoff T-shirt when you get to your seat.