As Dirk Nowitzki launched clutch jumpers and zipped past Chris Bosh, and as Jason Terry rifled in mid-range jimmies to juice the Dallas Mavericks' stunning fourth-quarter revival, one man in a blue uniform stood tall for the stout defense that made it all happen.
One 7'1" interior behemoth deterred drivers from the basket in a 95-93 victory. The Mavericks have been funneling elite finishers his way since training camp, so anchoring a coverage designed to make LeBron James and Dwyane Wade volume, crunch-time jump shooters was the end of another day at the office.
That man, inexplicably, will become homeless July 1, unless Dallas management cancels his unrestricted free agency with an extension. Labor strife complicates roster movement for all 30 teams now, but the Mavs have a reason to beat the clock.
Tyson Chandler finished with five fouls, 13 points and seven rebounds, but no way would the Mavericks have traversed the long road back from a 15-point deficit sans his steady, active presence.
It's time to figure out how to retain a 28-year-old, high-flying center who has transformed more than a once-flocculent defense. No, he's not Bill Russell, but given the dearth of big-time, seven-foot, shot-blocking and shot-altering centers, a flock of GM Donnie Nelson's peers will approach this summer with one objective: steal Chandler away from the organization that owes a great deal to his standing in the middle.
So give him a great deal before someone else does.
The Houston Rockets need talented but disciplined size and fast. The San Antonio Spurs will seek to add more bulk to replace the soon-to-retire Antonio McDyess and beef up a frontcourt damaged by Tim Duncan's curtailment.
The Mavs don't even have to leave Texas to find potential, determined competitors for Chandler's services. A caboodle of other executives could make a play for the tattooed, snarling stalwart.
Most others will want to discuss Shawn Marion's second straight superb showing in the Finals, Nowitzki's game-winning drive and the Heat players not using a foul to give on Dallas' final possession. They'll fawn over the down screen that preceded the German forward's decisive basket and the staggered pick-and-rolls that yielded a pair of open jumpers for Nowitzki.
I want to descant Chandler's continued impact. Miami bludgeoned Dallas on the offensive glass 16-6 in Game 1. The Heat won the overall rebounding battle 46-36.
That had to change for Rick Carlisle's team to have a chance. Chandler made sure it did. His early, yeoman's board work created second shots and kept the Mavs within striking distance when things threatened to get dicey. The guys in blue clubbed the guys in white 41-30 in the rebounding department.
James collected a third foul with 3:22 remaining in the second period, and Dallas failed to maintain a nine-point advantage. Wade drilled a three-pointer with 25 seconds left to knot the halftime score at 51.
Miami's all-world perimeter tandem then turned a bevy of uncharacteristic Jason Kidd miscues into calamitous James and Wade runouts. The Heat converted three of the Mavs' six third-quarter giveaways into spectacular transition slams.
Kidd looked like an out-of-sorts, AARP-ready, 38-year-old scrub instead of a halcyon, Hall of Fame floor general. Terry was likewise a bricklaying, ball-handling liability.
When Wade bagged a triple to afford the Heat a 15-point cushion with 7:14 left on the clock, the Mavs looked like yesterday's breakfast leftovers. They looked demoralized and finished, headed for an 0-2 deficit. It seemed batty for ABC play-by-play announcer Mike Breen to recall a Dallas rally from 14 down in Oklahoma City.
Wade extended his arms right in front of the dejected Mavs bench as if his team was flying, and it was difficult to argue. In the American Airlines rematch, the Jet wasn't Terry.
That was true until Dallas experienced an awakening that might deflate the air in Miami's aura and salvage its title hopes.
Terry, Marion, Kidd and Nowitzki supplied a combined nine buckets and two free throws in the final 6:19. That was enough because the opposing five players combined for one bucket and two free throws in that stretch. James knocked down a pair of freebies and Mario Chalmers hit a triple.
The Heat offense unraveled after Wade pantomimed a 747. A minor celebration after a monstrous shot was not uncalled for or unsportsmanlike. Counting out the effervescent Mavs was downright foolish.
Nowitzki's end-game barrage deserves all the notoriety and airtime it will get. Save some praise, though, for the Dallas defense. Save some praise for Chandler.
Which of these has happened more often: The Heat bench outplays the opponent's deeper supporting cast, or Chandler docks a defense that knows what to do when it matters?
In the lead-up to this series, much was written about the Mavs' 106-95 victory Nov. 27 at American Airlines Center that prompted a Heat players-only meeting. Perhaps it is appropriate to revisit what Chandler did that night.
Tyson Chandler: 14 PTS, 17 REB, 3 BLK
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier: 0 PTS, 7 REB, 3 BLK
That is impact.
Chandler's Thursday numbers will not make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a just-retired Shaquille O'Neal jealous, but he was an integral cog in the Mavs' series-altering defensive stand.
Erik Spoelstra bemoaned his team's faulty 11th-hour execution in a postgame presser. If Dallas harangued LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in tight contests, should blanking James and Wade come as a surprise?
Wasn't Bosh supposed to dominate Nowitzki's supposed inferior defense? Thanks to Nowitzki's acceptable effort and nifty and necessary help from Chandler, Bosh is shooting 26 percent. He was 4-of-16 in Game 1 and 4-of-16 in Game 2.
Many of the Mavs rotation fixtures will say "see ya'" soon enough. Kidd might retire if a lockout consumes most or all of a prospective 18th campaign. An average age of 32 does not suggest the meat of the core will stick around much longer.
If Nelson figures to dump Peja Stojakovic and other waning veterans, he should keep Chandler in the franchise's long-term plans. The center turns 29 on Oct. 2 and, provided he can stay healthy, offers Dallas an interior building block to keep Nowitzki's title window ajar another year or two.
How can the front office let Chandler go when recent history demonstrates he can lead a defense when healthy?
Turf toe severe enough to sabotage a physical, and various balky body parts might give some front offices pause. Nelson and Mark Cuban should not think twice about doing whatever it takes to keep Chandler.
He changes games and what foes can do. How else to explain the Mavs winning the Western Conference despite a sometimes-heavy reliance on zone?
The 3-2 and 2-3 coverages worked because of Chandler's faculties. Brendan Haywood grabbed the big bucks last summer. The man who usurped his expected starting role better get paid next.
If not before July 1, the period just after the lockout ends works, too. Plenty of other suitors would be happy to take him off Cuban's hands.
He racked up five fouls and clanged 3-of-8 free throws Thursday night, but one play summarized his season: He stripped James with 4:11 remaining in the first quarter to set up a Marion fast-break layup.
After drawing that fifth whistle at the 4:10 mark in the final period, he didn't screw up the rest of the way.
The Mavs would screw up by allowing him to walk.
Chandler becomes homeless July 1. Thanks to his unheralded effort in Game 2, at least, the Mavs will not head back to Dallas winless.
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