- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- Statistically speaking, the Dallas Mavericks have pulled off more difficult comebacks during this wild, crazy playoff ride.
This one, however, was all about toughness.
With their superstar sick and their shots not falling, the Mavericks somehow fought back from a nine-point deficit in the final 10 minutes of Tuesday night's NBA Finals-evening Game 4. Dallas resuscitated hope for its first championship with a remarkable display of defense, grit and guts to pull out the 86-83 win over the Miami Heat in front of a deafening sellout crowd at the American Airlines Center.
Dallas has pulled off a pair of 15-point fourth-quarter rallies in its past six games, including one to earn a split during its stay in Miami to start this series. The Mavs have had two other double-digit comebacks during this postseason and a couple others from eight points down late in games.
But coach Rick Carlisle -- who has preached defense as the key to Dallas' destiny since the first day of training camp -- has never been prouder of this team than he was after a megatalented Miami squad managed to make only five field goals while committing six turnovers during the fourth quarter.
In fact, Carlisle has never been prouder of any team.
"Look, we're a tough ballclub," said Carlisle, who took a major risk by adjusting his starting lineup for the first time all postseason. "We don't have the appearance of a bruising-type team, but this is as mentally tough a group as I've ever had.
"I love this team more than any team I've ever had what they stand for, how they play together and how they trust."
For most teams, it would have felt like the brink of elimination after Udonis Haslem's baseline jumper gave the Heat a 74-65 lead with 10:12 remaining.
After all, the Heat have a pair of awe-inspiring athletes who have proved themselves to be among the NBA's elite closers, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And Dirk Nowitzki, who has been the dominant force in the Mavs' many comebacks, had a triple-digit temperature all day and a single-digit shooting percentage since scoring the game's first six points.
The Mavs, as they've made clear over and over again during this magical run, are not most teams.
Jason Terry, the co-closer whom Nowitzki publicly noted had been a nonfactor down the stretch of the Mavs' two losses this series, sparked the comeback by backing up his off-day words and attacking James for off-the-dribble buckets on two straight possessions. Terry also scored the go-ahead bucket with a fast-break layup, all part of a 17-4 run over a span of a little less than eight minutes.
Nowitzki, whose nasty sinus infection sucked the energy out of his 7-foot frame, willed his way to 10 points in the last nine minutes. He knocked down six free throws and managed to finish a couple of driving layups, including one with 14.9 seconds remaining after Wade, the Mavs' nemesis, missed a potential tying free throw.
But this win wasn't about beautiful offensive basketball. Far from it, with the Mavs shooting less than 40 percent in the game and even worse than that in the final frame.
"Our defense won us the game," Nowitzki said after one of the most memorable 6-of-19 shooting nights in NBA history.
That defense produced eight straight stops to make the comeback possible.
That defense allowed only five field goals and forced six turnovers in the fourth quarter.
That defense held James to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, the only time in 90 career playoff games the self-proclaimed King failed to crack double digits.
That defense withstood another spectacular NBA Finals performance from Wade, who finished with 32 points and produced half of the Heat's 14 points in the fourth quarter.
Carlisle doesn't want any credit, but he deserves a large share of it. He confused the Heat by switching to a zone in the fourth quarter, a genius adjustment for a man who must outcoach Miami's Erik Spoelstra to give his far less talented team a chance to win a championship.
"The schemes we're using aren't very complex," Carlisle said, deflecting praise to his players. "It's just all about hard play."
Nowitzki, Terry, 38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd, rugged starter-turned-reserve swingman DeShawn Stevenson and iron (big) man Tyson Chandler consistently outhustled the Heat with the game -- and the Mavs' season -- on the line.
As smart as the zone scheme was, it never would have worked without the Mavs scrambling and covering for each other. And all that would have been fruitless if Nowitzki and Chandler hadn't dominated the glass, combining for 11 of their 27 rebounds in the fourth quarter.
"Just the will to win," Chandler said, summing up the key element of what might have been the Mavs' most amazing of many comebacks.
That never changes for the miracle Mavericks, no matter the odds.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
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