Dirk Nowitzki’s 21 points in Dallas’s 86-83 victory over Miami Tuesday were even more remarkable when you consider that Nowitzki, sporting the glowing nose of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, ignored illness to bring the Mavericks back to win from yet another late deficit. In almost a mirror image of Game 2, Nowitzki drove into the paint and made a layup in the final moments that proved to be the decisive score.
Also critical to Dallas’s success was the momentous play of center Tyson Chandler, who had 13 points and a monster 16 rebounds (nine of those being offensive). Those rebounds were essential to bringing the Mavericks back in the fourth quarter where, at one point, Miami had a scoring drought of over five minutes.
But just as huge was the continued strong play of forward Shawn Marion, who added 16 points for Dallas. The Mavericks, all told, got five players into double figures, and along with their scoring down the stretch, pestered Miami into turning the ball over six times in the fourth period alone. During the fourth quarter, Dallas’ coach Rick Carlisle deftly shifted from a man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone, which seemed to thoroughly confuse the Heat, who managed only 5-of-15 shooting from the floor to go along with their half-dozen turnovers.
From the offensive side, Dallas shook things up from the beginning of the game – starting guard J. J. Barea over DeShawn Stevenson - presumably for increasing the Mavericks’ speed in transition. But Carlisle’s move paid dividends in the end, with Stevenson adding 11 first-half points that left the Mavericks down by only two at the half, 47-45.
And his contribution was even more important when considering that Nowitzki, who scored the first six Dallas points, proceeded to go bone dry from the floor, hitting only 1 of his next 11 shots. Carlisle also decided to rotate in Brian Cardinal for Nowitzki, who also proved productive in that Miami, who pulled down nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter, got only six more the entire game.
Dwyane Wade, who had another big night with 32 points, put on a clinic of athleticism with open court dunks and blocked shots. In one instance, Dallas’s Chandler, who, as a center towers over Miami’s smaller guard, was blocked from behind by Wade when attempting a dunk. In fact, Wade led the team for the game with two blocked shots.
Chris Bosh also had a good night, adding 24 points; but the real question mark for Miami was LeBron James’s performance. He had 8 points – the first game in 435 where he didn’t score in double-figures, and committed four turnovers. His shooting was woeful, hitting only 3 of 11 field goals, no three-pointers in three attempts, and, at one juncture late in the game, badly missed two consecutive free-throws – a rarity. And the Heat are 0-8 in playoff games when James scores under 15 points. For whatever reason, the Miami offense was unable to get him involved when they needed him. After the game, James accepted responsibility for his lack of performance. “I’ve got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively,” James said.
The previous two games of this series were each determined by two points; last night’s by a whopping three. This is a big reason why the excitement of this series has rubbed off on the American public, who are giving these Finals near record broadcast ratings.
Repeated improbable comebacks along with the brand of mutual competitiveness that resulted in 15 ties and 12 lead changes last night are big reasons for this; but what matters most in the end is who’s the most clutch.
So far, Dallas and its group of hardened veterans have proven that down the stretch, presented with a big deficit, they can gut out wins. And putting the ball in the hands of Nowitzki, the ultimate in clutch players, has been instrumental in getting the Mavericks their two Finals victories.
Miami may have superior athleticism, speed in transition, and more pure shooters in their “big three”; but victories most often come to teams who do the little things better and who make fewer mistakes when it counts. And, if Tuesday night’s fourth quarter is any indication, Dallas looks superior in that regard.