MIAMI — His left middle finger was mangled, with a small splint taped to the back of it, but Dirk Nowitzki wouldn’t let it be an excuse, wouldn’t let it be an obstacle to completing the task that he was unable to fulfill five years ago. He was too close to getting that long-awaited NBA Finals victory at American Airlines Arena, so when Chris Bosh forced him to go left, he went left.
And with a few high dribbles, a spin move around Bosh, and an easy flip shot off the backboard with his injured left hand, Nowitzki brought the Dallas Mavericks back from the brink of another South Beach burial and flipped upside down the bad karma that he was unable to shake since he flopped in the 2006 Finals.
The 95-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Thursday — when the Mavericks used an incredible 22-5 run over the final seven minutes to overcome a 15-point deficit — was secured when Nowitzki defended Dwyane Wade on his 28-foot desperation heave. When Wade’s shot hit the back of the rim, Nowitzki proudly hoisted his right fist and stomped around as a fallen Wade held his hand against his cheek, hoping for a foul, as the Mavericks tied the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with the next three in Dallas, beginning on Sunday.
“Each Finals there’s going to be a turning point. There’s going to be a moment, so to speak,” said Jason Terry, Nowitzki’s only remaining teammate from the squad that lost in six games to Miami. “And [on Thursday] the moment was ours.”
The moment belonged to Dallas because Nowitzki wrestled the final three minutes away from Wade and LeBron James, as he scored the Mavericks’ final nine points and refused to let his team fold. He hit a 19-foot jumper to bring Dallas within two, tied the score at 90 with a left-handed layup, made a three-pointer to give his team the lead and chewed into Terry for letting Heat reserve Mario Chalmers get open for a tying three. Then, after telling Terry that he had his back, Nowitzki got the ball in isolation near the top of the key and made a layup that ruined a night that Wade, the 2006 Finals MVP, and James had celebrated prematurely with punches and preening.
“I must admit I didn’t even watch it,” Nowitzki said.
Dallas was guilty of getting ahead of itself five years ago, when the Mavericks won the first two games at home and the city revealed plans for a championship parade. The series moved to Miami, where Dallas lost all three games, beginning with a meltdown that saw the Mavericks blow a 13-point lead in the final 6:42 in the series-altering Game 3 and ending with another controversial defeat in Game 5 after which Nowitzki stormed off the court and kicked an exercise bike in frustration.
Nowitzki has repeatedly said that the ghosts of that miserable Game 3 loss always haunt him. “You know, as much as ’06 is still on mine and [Terry’s] mind, during the game you don’t think about anything like that. You’re caught in the moment as a player out there. You compete right there,” he said. “You take every position like it’s the last in the Finals. You don’t really think about anything else but trying to get this win.”
Nowitzki scored a team-high 24 points, hauled in 11 rebounds and handed out four assists. He missed seven of his first 10 shots but would not blame his damaged finger. “It felt great,” Nowitzki said. “I thought it wasn’t going to bother me before the game, and it didn’t. We were able to keep the tape a little lower, so I was able to keep my grip on the ball. Because my palm was open, and my fingertips were open. So I was able to get a good grip on the ball. Finger felt fine, and hopefully it’s going to stay that way.”
He kept his championship hopes alive with a performance that could eventually change the perception of Nowitzki’s legacy, and certainly put aside the soft label that was unjustly attached to him. Having already led Dallas to two thrilling comebacks in their sweep against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, and later erupting for 40 points in a game in which the Mavericks overcame a 15-point deficit in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City, Nowitzki helped his team become the first to overcome a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit in the Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls finished off the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 6 in 1992.
Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle, as he has often in recent weeks, compared Nowitzki to the best teammate he ever had, Larry Bird. “Look, I played with Bird for three years when he was the best player in the world. Guys like that don’t feel pain right now,” Carlisle said. “You play, and if you’re feeling pain, you make yourself numb so you don’t feel pain. You’ve got to play and you’ve got to be a warrior.”
And Nowitzki knows from past experience that he can’t look ahead. The Mavericks have seized control and homecourt advantage, but when asked about the series returning to Dallas, Nowitzki said, “We’re not going to approach the next three. We’re going to approach the next one like it’s our last. You cannot get a split and get a huge emotional win in Game 2 and then go home and lose Game 3. As far as I’m concerned, the next one is the biggest game of them all. And hopefully our crowd will be rocking. They’ve been great to us and carried us throughout the playoffs so far. So we’re going home to a great building, and hopefully get Game 3.”