"You cannot get a split and get a huge emotional win in Game 2 and then go home and lose Game 3."
The Mavs did just that, stung again by turnovers and a runway of Dwyane Wade layups and LeBron James dunks in digging double-digit hole after double-digit hole. This time they ran out of shovels and game-winners from Nowitzki, who had to produce 34 points -- 40 percent of his team's points -- just for the chance to win another one in the final seconds.
His 16-foot fallaway, with Heat forward Udonis Haslem in Nowitzki's face and not Chris Bosh giving him space, bounced high off the back rim and the Mavs slinked away with a disappointing 88-86 defeat to a Miami Heat team that did little celebrating to the very end.
As the Mavs' committee approach gets snuffed out by the Heat's suffocating defense to trail 2-1 in this best-of-seven series, a two-game run is now needed to take it back to Miami with any real hope of winning the championship.
The most repeated stat of the past two days suggests Dallas was read its last rites. In the 11 previous series tied at 1-1 in the 2-3-2 format, the Game 3 winner has won the title all 11 times.
The Mavs have been bucking trends all postseason, but Nowitzki, stiff-lipped and sullen on the podium, rarely looked up as he earnestly answered postgame questions. He didn't attempt to gloss over his adamant Game 2 statement.
"My view hasn't changed. This definitely was a big game and a very tough loss," Nowitzki said. "Emotional game, fought back, and to fall short at the end is tough, but they need two more.
"This is a tough loss, and it's basically a must-win situation on Tuesday. We can't go down 3-1."
The Mavs have plenty to fix before then. Backup center Brendan Haywood missed Game 3 with a hip injury and is questionable for Game 4. Peja Stojakovic is a no-show. Jason Terry and J.J. Barea are off line and that difference-making Dallas depth is being strung out.
Nowitzki finished 11-of-21. The rest of the team was 17-of-49. Terry missed a wide-open look with the game tied at 86-86 and 58.6 seconds to play. Chris Bosh then hit a near-identical shot for the 88-86 lead with 39.6 left.
"If we have the open looks, we just got to make them," said Nowitzki, who blamed miscommunication on a pass he intended for Shawn Marion that sailed into the stands with 30.2 seconds to go. "We haven't made enough of them. If we're going to keep shooting in the low 40s [40.0 percent in Game 3], it's going to be tough to win."
Shooting aside, turnovers and the Heat's offensive rebounding continue to sabotage Dallas. The Heat led by as many as 14 points in the second quarter, 13 in the third and seven in the fourth. The Mavs continually cut into the deficit, but could never overcome their own miscues. Six turnovers for a whopping 14 points were especially damaging in the first half.
After the first quarter -- which the Mavs led 19-18 before an 11-3 close by the Heat -- Dallas tied it up four times but led for just 27 seconds the rest of the game, at 59-58, with 3:17 to go in the third quarter.
"It's like we'd fight so hard, you make a comeback, you tie the ballgame and we just roll the ball to them for highlights and they go up again 10 points, nine points, 14 points," Mavs center Tyson Chandler said. "And then you're fighting again uphill. We've got to quit that."
The problem is this isn't new or unique to this series. It can be argued that the Mavs have not played a complete game since routing the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Dallas rallied from a 15-point deficit in the final five minutes of Game 4 to force overtime. They played from behind the entirety of Game 5 before a 17-6 flurry in the final five minutes bailed them out.
Dallas again had to climb back throughout this series, and without Nowitzki's nine consecutive points in the final 2:44 of Game 2 to cap a rally from 15 down with seven minutes to go, the Heat could be seeking the sweep.
The final minutes and possessions always go under the microscope first when examining the thin line between victory and defeat. But the Mavs got burned early.
In their first NBA Finals game on home turf since the Game 6 defeat to the Heat five years ago, Dallas gave up 29 points in the first quarter and trailed by seven -- a margin that shrunk after each of the next three quarters but could never be overcome.
Wade led the Heat with 29 points as he continues to torment the Mavs, even as James had been taking over the alpha dog role in previous playoff series. Coming into this one, Wade said, smiling, that he felt the same as Nowitzki.
"You can't lose a game like that [Game 2] and come and lose Game 3," Wade said. "We felt this was a must-win. We had to put it upon ourselves to try to take home court back in a sense, and by any means necessary."
If the Mavs don't quickly reverse trend, Dallas won't be able to stop Wade from celebrating again.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.