The “decision” for head coach Rick Carlisle and his Dallas Mavericks in game four of the NBA Finals was easy: either toughen up and even the series, or stumble to a 3-1 deficit, which no team has ever overcome on the biggest stage in basketball.
The “closer”, Dirk Nowitzki, and his supporting cast didn’t hesitate to choose the first option, as they outscored the “indecisive” Miami Heat 21-9 over the final 10:12 to earn an epic 86-83 victory on Tuesday night in front of a capacity crowd inside American Airlines Center.
After being called out by Nowitzki for not making clutch shots in the Mavericks' Game 3 loss, Jason Terry responded in strong fashion. Terry scored the first two Dallas baskets of the fourth quarter to spark the Mavs' comeback, and he capped the winning rally by scoring his 16th and 17th points of the game, sinking two free throws with 6.7 seconds left.
The Heat couldn’t manage anything close to a high-percentage three-point attempt to force overtime before the final buzzer sounded.
However, the storyline of the night was once again centered around the performance of Dirk Nowitzki.
Despite playing through a sinus infection and a fever over 100 degrees, not to mention all his other battle wounds, Nowitzki managed to overcome a rough first three quarters of play in which he shot a combined 4-of-13 from the floor.
He scored 10 of his 21 points and hauled in five of his 11 rebounds in the fourth quarter to help the Mavs pull off their second stunning finish this series. For Nowitzki, it was his third time in the series he has scored more than 10 points in the fourth quarter.
"Just battle it out," Nowitzki said after the game, still fighting his sickness. "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 and Terry weren’t the only Mavs making a scoring impact, as three others scored in double figures: Shawn Marion (16), Tyson Chandler (13), and DeShawn Stevenson (11).
Chandler’s presence down low was even more noteworthy. The wide-framed Mavs center gathered in a game-high 16 rebounds, nine of which were on the offensive boards.
Carlisle was very pleased with his team’s performance and had much praise for them.
“Look, we’re a tough ballclub,” he said after the game. “We’ve been tough all year. We don’t have the appearance of a physically bruising-type team, but this is as mentally tough a group as I’ve ever had.”
As for Miami, the only sources of offense they could find all night long came from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who combined for 56 points and were the only two Heat players to finish in double figures.
Going virtually silent for the entire game was LeBron James, who had been averaging over 25 points per game in the postseason. With the Dallas defense pestering at him for all 46 minutes he was on the court, James couldn’t muster any source of offense, as he finished with eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.
James' eight points set a new personal playoff low, and ended a double-figure scoring streak of 433 consecutive games, including regular season and postseason. Additionally, his lackluster performance has given the Mavs a great deal of momentum heading into Game 5, which will be played on Thursday night in Dallas.
Wade scored a game-high 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting from the floor. He also led both teams in blocks, with two, each coming in the fourth quarter.
"I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively," said James. "I'm confident in my ability. It's just about going out there and knocking them down."
Although the Heat lacked the presence of “King James,” they managed enough timely offense and hard-nosed defense to hold the lead for most of the game. But, like in Game 2, they puttered away a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
However, James is not completely to blame, as Wade failed to come through in two big situations with under a minute to play in the game. Wade missed a free throw with 30.1 seconds left, and muffed Miami’s inbounds pass with 6.7 seconds left.
The fumble wound up in the hands of Mike Miller just past midcourt, and his desperation heave was well off the mark, ending the game and evening the series at two apiece.
"This series is a jump ball," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "These guys live for these type of moments. It's about execution and disposition in the fourth quarter, being able to close out. We have a golden opportunity in the next game."
The last three games between the two teams, who are both dying to get their hands on the Finals Trophy, have been decided by three points or less, and NBA fans should be in store for another epic battle between the “Giants of Men” on Thursday night.
FG%: Miami 42.7%
FT%: Miami 70.8%
*In the history of the Finals, when both teams are tied going into Game 5, the winner of Game 5 has gone on to win every time.