Ringless stars face moment of truth
Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki, Heat's LeBron James ride intriguing routes to title crossroads
MIAMI -- Although this NBA Finals has thus far been decided by a razor-thin margin as it churns to Sunday night's Game 6, the fortunes of two opposing superstars are orbiting worlds apart.
One is low-key and lower-maintenance. He has forbidden himself from exhaling or even savoring a single word written about his brilliance on the basketball court during one of the all-time great playoff runs. His elusive championship "dream" is closer than ever, one win away.
And so these two polar-opposite superstars seeking their first championship ring meet at this most intriguing career crossroads. Dirk Nowitzki has not played in a more important game. LeBron James has already tweeted: "Now or never."
"We've got one more big win, hopefully, to get," Nowitzki said. "And then I can be satisfied."
Nowitzki, now cast as the perseverant peoples' choice, has faced head-on failure and pointed criticism for years with the Dallas Mavericks. He was a soft, 3-point shooting Euro. He couldn't lead. He couldn't win it all when it was all right there.
James, transformed from hero to villain by one decision -- and moreso the execution of that decision -- is being buried under a landslide of media and public scrutiny, and seemingly by doubt seeping into the inexplicably mushy head of the two-time MVP.
If James and the Miami Heat lose this series, cough it up on their home floor, the hammer will come down with bludgeoning force.
"I got hammered the last 13 years, basically," Nowitzki said. "So, hopefully this year I can make the hammering go away for one year."
James has been badly outplayed by Nowitzki in the series and most glaringly in the fourth quarters. The Mavs' 7-footer is averaging better than 10 points per fourth quarter with two game winners. James has 11 total points in the final periods of the first five games.
As perhaps the most scrutinized athlete on the planet, James said he recognizes the hammer comes with the territory.
"I had a triple-double last game. I had a bad game in a lot of people's eyes," said James, who is averaging 17.2 points in the series and has scored fewer than 20 points for three consecutive games for the first time in his playoff career. "I understand that. That's just the situation I'm in. That's the bowl I'm in right now."
In these playoffs, he has not been rattled. His focus hasn't waned. He absorbed the 23-point collapse in Portland and preached togetherness. He is more vocal. He is more assertive. And, arguably, he has been the most dominant player throughout the playoffs.
Since playfully punching Dwyane Wade after Wade's 3-pointer put the Heat ahead in Game 2, 88-73, with seven minutes to play, James has seemingly lost his way.
Nowitzki marches on. He is leading, and his poised, veteran teammates are following with similarly steady play.
He is averaging a career-best 28.1 points and 8.0 rebounds. He is shooting 49.6 percent from the floor, 51.2 percent from 3-point range and 94.0 percent from the free throw line. Against a swarming Heat defense that put the clamps on league MVP Derrick Rose, Nowitzki has averaged 27.0 points and 9.4 rebounds.
He tore a tendon in his left middle finger at the end of Game 1 and won Game 2 with a driving lefty layup. He came to work for Game 4 with a sinus infection and 101-degree fever, and he won that one with a driving layup to the right.
"We're one win away from my dream, what I've worked on for half of my life," Nowitzki said. "This is really all I'm worried about. This is all I'm focusing on, and not really off-the-court stuff that happened."
2011 NBA Finals: Champion Mavericks
Game 1: Heat 92, Mavericks 84
Game 2: Mavericks 95, Heat 93
Game 3: Heat 88, Mavericks 86
Game 4: Mavericks 86, Heat 83
Game 5: Mavericks 112, Heat 103
Game 6: Mavericks 105, Heat 95
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Wade and James downplayed the antics as being overblown by the media. Nowitzki failed to see the humor.
Sophomoric silliness aside, it is Wade's play that has the Heat optimistic that they can stem this two-game slide and win the next two to take the title despite James' struggles.
The series has been ultra-competitive with the Mavs and Nowitzki dominating the fourth quarters to come from behind in Games 2, 4 and even 5, when Miami rallied to lead by four with four minutes to play.
Yet, which James shows up in Game 6 just might determine if it is he or Nowitzki who will revel in a first championship.
A title for Nowitzki will finally see the long, hard climb come to fruition. A championship for James could be the first of many in a Heat dynasty.
Both players understand the alternative.
"If you lose," Nowitzki said, "you're going to get hammered."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.