The Mavs rallied behind a sick leader to knot the series at two games apiece with a thrilling 86-83 triumph on Tuesday. It wasn’t just Dirk Nowitzki’s hand that was ailing in Game 4, it was the rest of his body, too.
"I just battled it out," said Nowitzki, who played despite suffering from a sinus infection and a fever that reached 101 earlier in the day.
Nowitzki scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter in Game 4, including eight during a big run that gave the Mavericks the lead.
Jason Terry scored four straight points to spark the 17-4 spurt that pulled the Mavericks out of a nine-point deficit in the fourth. Terry had six total points during the surge, and later hit a pair of free throws with 6.7 seconds left to give Dallas its final margin of victory.
The Mavs survived a last-second shot by Miami’s Mike Miller, who ended up with the ball on the high right side only after Dwyane Wade let the inbounds pass hit off his hand and float toward the backcourt.
"It didn’t look good," Nowitzki said of his team’s deficit in the last quarter, "but our energy and defense really picked us up."
"This series is a jump ball, every single game," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "And they out-played us in the fourth quarter, obviously."
Playing again with a splint on his injured left middle finger, Nowitzki was just 4-of-13 for 11 points through three quarters — he missed a free throw for the first time in the Finals, too — and said he was "just a little under the weather."
"I didn’t really have a good night’s rest," he said.
When it came down to it, though, Nowitzki again was everything his team needed him to be.
Mirroring the move he made to win Game 2, the 7-foot German held the ball on a late possession and drove right past Udonis Haslem for a layup that made it 84-81 with 14.4 seconds left.
Slashing to block the shot, Wade got there a split-second too late. But he dribbled past Chandler on the other end for a dunk that got the Heat within a point.
Terry made his free throws with 6.7 seconds remaining, again putting the Mavs ahead by three points, but the Heat couldn’t get a clean shot off after their timeout, settling for Miller’s off-balance try.
Nowitzki labored, sitting until the end of every timeout to conserve his energy in a performance reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s "Flu Game" in the 1997 NBA Finals. He looked anything but festive after the big win, sniffling through his post-game press conference.
But, as Chandler put it afterwards: "It’s always better when you win."
"He’s one of the greatest ever. He wants the ball and he wants the responsibility of winning or losing the game," said Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle. "We make every effort of putting him in those situations."
It’s a best-of-three series now with tonight’s Game 5 in North Texas acting as a swing game before things shift back to Miami for Game 6 on Sunday and, possibly, a winner-take-all Game 7 next Tuesday night.
With the stakes so high James knows he must turn up the intensity on the offensive end tonight.
"I think it’s that time that I try to get myself going individually, but at the same time still play my game," said James. "And when I say be more aggressive, that doesn’t mean be more aggressive and have to shoot the ball. It just means being more aggressive and looking for opportunities to get a look."
"Sounds good to me," Wade said.
James shot just 3-of-11 from the field and the eight points was more than 20 points below his career playoff average. The two-time former MVP did managed to collect nine rebounds and seven assists but also turned the ball over four times, and was regretful on Wednesday for not being more assertive.
"I didn’t play well, especially offensively. I know that," James said. "I’ve got to do a better job of helping this team win basketball games, especially late, no matter what it is. If that’s getting an offensive rebound, like I said, making a couple of baskets, being more aggressive to give my guys opportunities to get open looks. I have to do that. That’s what my job."
Dallas’ DeShawn Stevenson attempted to up the pressure on the embattled James, saying LeBron "checked out" in the fourth quarter of Dallas’ Game 4 win.
"DeShawn, he’s been talking for a long time, since our Washington-Cleveland days," James said. "I don’t let that get to us. Those guys are playing well. We’re playing well. It’s a three-game series. Talk is cheap."
Nowitzki, meanwhile, was still coughing on Wednesday, but looked livelier and will be ready to go for Game 5.
The series is a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals, when Wade and the Heat beat Nowitzki’s Mavericks in six games after falling behind 0-2 in the series. It was the only other time either franchise made the Finals.