Who knew this series was going to come down to Dirk Nowitzki vs. Dwyane Wade for MVP and everything in the NBA pot? Who foresaw the guy who actually calls himself King James playing a fourth-quarter peasant, taking one lousy shot and failing to reach double figures for the first time in his playoff career?
After 48 hours of staunch support from most national observers, no less, who believe LeBron James’s final-period lack of production doesn’t adequately address his contributions in these all-tied-up NBA Finals.
“I think that it happened in a loss is the anger part of it,” LeBron said after his passive body language embodied the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 on Tuesday night. He said not to worry, he would be ready for Game 5, even if he had to get some extra shots in — because when someone yells “LeBrick!” after two straight missed free throws and a bevy of errant jumpers, something is in the coronation business has gone wrong.
Maybe this is just LeBron cruelly teasing the masses until he delivers a wrenching three-pointer to end Dallas’s season on his home floor.
Maybe this is some grand ploy by LeBron, part of his own game-within-the-game theater, in which the most complete player in pro basketball suddenly decides to miss 8 of 11 shots and finish with eight measly points in a game his team had in the bag with less than 10 minutes left.
Either way, amid the boisterous noise emanating from American Airlines Center, where Dirk and the Mavericks squared the series at two games apiece by somehow finding their game after all appeared lost, it’s now clear what Miami’s purpose to the season was about: Hope.
After yet another fourth-quarter collapse in the crucible of the Finals, Team Collusion’s greatest gift to the NBA and its fans everywhere this season has been making them believe they all had a chance to repel the Heat.
Wade and LeBron’s drama kings could have had a nice, little tidy four-game sweep by now, and had their most strident detractors groaning about the birth of the league’s next dynasty.
Instead, they find themselves in a best-of-three scrap with a reinvigorated, desperate team that looked completely outclassed for much of the second half — until Dirk awakened again.
It is tough to beat the Heat with a 100-degree temperature, which is what Dirk Nowitzki reportedly had midway through the most important game of the Mavericks’ season.
But then, when the Heat cooperates and melts down — losing a nine-point lead in the final 10 minutes 12 seconds — when Dirk drives to the goal again in the final seconds and ducks his head under three defenders and decides the outcome, anything is possible.
Like the guy with the fever and the inferior supporting cast improbably beating the Heat twice in the last three games.
This game and, for that matter, this series was all but over in the opening minutes of the final quarter.
His cult-hero status played out, J.J. Barea’s 15 minutes of church-league fame were up. Shawn Marion’s jump hook no longer found the rim, much less the net. Even dagger-maker Dirk was off. He missed his first free throw of the NBA Finals and about his second in a month.
Nearing the end of the third quarter, when Wade climbed that invisible staircase above the goal, took an alley-oop pass from his more-famous teammate and dunked so viciously on the Mavericks, the season was coming into full view, almost perfect clarity:
LeBron’s decision was almost validated. He wasn’t just right to leave Cleveland for Miami; everything he went through was all worth it less than a season in. The derision after “The Decision.” A new team’s growing pains. Everything.
Maybe LeBron would never be Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant or any other superstar who stayed and toughed it out with the franchise that drafted him until they won a title.
But he also wouldn’t be Patrick Ewing, either. Or, heck, moving into Dirk territory.
Think about it. If Dallas went down three games to one, the largest fear Nowitzki could have is that the comparisons to Larry Bird would stop and the ones to Ewing would not be far off.
Ewing carried the Knicks, never playing with another Hall of Fame player for any genuine stretch of his career. By the time the Knicks began to put real talent and athleticism around him, he didn’t have enough left physically to anchor a championship team.
Jason Kidd is 38, Shawn Marion is 34, Jason Terry is 33, and those are the Mavericks’ best role players.
LeBron thought to himself more than once that he didn’t have enough talent to win in Cleveland and he probably wondered how long he was going to have to wait.
If he wins two of the next three, he looks like the consummate team player that didn’t care about individual accolades as much as hoisting some hardware that actually mattered.
If Dirk wins two of the next three, he comes across as the loyal company guy whose owner believed in building a roster around him after everyone else in the NBA deserted the Mavericks as a bona fide contender.
It will be high drama in Big D on Thursday night in Game 5, the entire season very much in the balance. And whether LeBron is your cup of tea or the player you most want to see humiliated on a national stage, we all must give him credit for one thing:
His and his team’s fourth-quarter disappearing act in Game 4 made all of this happen; they gave another team a chance to fend off the league’s dynasty for at least one more night and, perhaps, one more season.
That’s better than Heat in 4 or 5 any night of the week.