Dirk Nowitzki drives around Miami’s Udonis Haslem for a layup to give Dallas a three-point lead with 14.9 seconds to play. Nowitzki had 21 points and 11 rebounds as the Mavericks tied up the NBA Finals at two games apiece. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James, two superstars each in search of his first NBA championship, were struggling to find a rhythm offensively, struggling with their confidence and leaning more heavily than usual on their teammates. Nowitzki had an alibi, as he spent most of the day wheezing and coughing because of a fever. James had no reported ailment — other than being overly deferential to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as he treated the basketball as if it were a flammable object.

For three quarters, the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat played close, but with the game on the line, James hid further behind his fellow all-stars while Nowitzki decided to repay his teammates with another heroic turn. With his team holding a one-point lead and needing a basket in the closing seconds to hold off the hard-charging Wade, Nowitzki drove around Udonis Haslem and knocked down a scoop shot with 14.9 seconds remaining that proved to be the difference in an 86-83 victory that evened the NBA Finals at two games apiece. Game 5 is Thursday in Dallas.

“You know, this is the Finals,” said Nowitzki, who scored 10 of his team-high 21 points in the final period. “You’re going to leave it all out there. You have to go out there and compete and try your best for your team. So, that’s what I did.”

Once again, the Mavericks staged another late comeback, using a 21-9 run over the final 10 minutes to overcome another sensational performance from Wade, who led all players with 32 points. The Heat had an opportunity to tie the game with 6.7 seconds remaining, but Wade fumbled a bad pass from Mike Miller and shoveled the ball back to Miller, who missed a desperation air-ball three-pointer.

“I was denied,” Wade said. “I just fumbled it because I was kind of anxious because I saw the opening really fast, trying to get there before I caught the ball. Obviously, I would love to have that play back. We would love to have a lot of plays back.”

Nowitzki made amends for missing the possible tying jumper at end of regulation in Game 3 two nights before, as he battled through an illness that knocked him out overnight and kept him from participating in the morning practice. He tried to sleep off the effects and made his first three baskets, but he missed nine of his next 10 shots and also had his string of consecutive made free throws snapped at 39.

That didn’t keep him from staying aggressive until the final critical possession, when he refused to settle for a jumper and drove right to finish over Haslem in a similar fashion to his drive left around Bosh for the winning basket at the end of Game 2.

“He’s one of the greatest ever,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said. “He wants the ball. He wants the responsibility of winning and losing the game.”

James performed well at the end of games for much of this postseason, but he disappeared offensively in the fourth quarter for the third game in a row as he attempted just one shot, an off-target, step-back jumper in the final two minutes. He finished with a playoff career-low eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, with nine rebounds and seven assists. It was the first time since Jan. 5, 2007, that he failed to score in double figures, a string of 433 games, including the playoffs.

“I got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively, not staying out of the rhythm offensively the whole game,” James said. “I think the fact that it happened in a loss is a the anger part about it. That’s all that matters to me. If I had had eight points and we won the game, I could be satisfied. I’ll come back in Game 5 and do the things that need to be done to help our team win.”

Known for his playmaking skills, James was apprehensive and indecisive whenever he touched the ball. He had four turnovers, fired errant passes, and even left his feet for a pass in the fourth quarter but was unable to get rid of the ball before being called for traveling.

“He struggled. Point-blank, period,” Bosh said of James.

James also failed to contain Mavericks guard Jason Terry, who rebounded from a scoreless fourth quarter in Game 3 to score eight of his 17 points in the final period.

“The aggression was there for me, personally,” Terry said. “And I like that I was on the attack, which I said I would be. I’m going to have to continue to be aggressive and take advantage of my opportunities.”

The Mavericks were determined to get Nowitzki more help, which they did, as Shawn Marion had 16 points and Tyson Chandler had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Carlisle made the first major adjustment of the series, as he replaced DeShawn Stevenson in the starting lineup with point guard J.J. Barea. Stevenson, whose primary purpose is to play defense, responded to his benching by surprisingly giving the Mavericks some of the offensive production they desperately needed from the bench. He hit three three-pointers and scored 11 points.

With James playing as if he wanted to be elsewhere, Wade was all over the floor, harassing, hawking and flaunting his talents by stomping down confidently after making a difficult pull-up jumper or staring angrily at stunned fans. Wade appeared ready to shut down the Mavericks with another virtuoso fourth-quarter performance. He rebounded a Mario Chalmers miss, beating Nowitzki to the ball, and made a short jumper to give the Heat a 76-69 lead with 8 minutes 42 seconds remaining.

Wade was a one-man wrecking crew, as he finished with two blocked shots, including a nasty rejection as Chandler tried to dunk with two hands. He got increasingly frustrated with his teammates as the Mavericks rallied back, snapping at them after a failed box out contributed to a putback for Chandler. But with the Heat trailing by two with 30.1 seconds remaining, Wade missed the second of two free throws, setting up Nowitzki’s deciding layup.

“Against a team like this, when you’re playing them at home and they’re desperate, we had to do a better job of closing them out,” said Bosh, who was unaware that Nowitzki was sick. “I’ve never been out there and somebody pointed and said, ‘He’s got a fever.’ You know what I’m saying?”

In the Mavericks’ past four playoff wins, they have come back from at least eight points down in the fourth quarter. The past three games of this best-of-seven series have been decided by seven points. “That’s what this series is about,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This series is a jump ball. Every single game.”