- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- His free agency decision last summer wasn't celebrated with smoke machines and dance routines. He's never had a major endorsement deal. His highlight reel is filled with jump shots, not high-flying attacks on the rim. He's not even close to cracking seven figures in Twitter followers.
Of course, Nowitzki doesn't care about matching the Miami Heat megastars' hype. He's just fine with quietly being the best player in these NBA Finals, which his Dallas Mavericks are one victory away from winning after Thursday night's 112-103 victory in Game 5.
"He's not flashy," Dallas swingman DeShawn Stevenson said after Nowitzki's 29-point performance in the final game of the season at the American Airlines Center. "It's going to take a ring to get his respect."
If Mavs can keep it close in Miami, bet on Nowitzki getting his ring and respect. There's no reason to believe the Heat can suddenly figure out how to stop the Mavs' MVP when the pressure peaks.
There's no question that Nowitzki has stood a shaggy head and shoulders above the Miami's magnificent, megalomaniacal tandem in this series, especially when it matters most. His splinted fingerprints have been all over crunch time in these Finals, which is when all five games have been decided.
Actually, Nowitzki has been twice as good as the Heat's two stars during winning time. That's fact, not opinion. Just check the numbers.
In the final five minutes with the score within five points, Nowitzki has scored 26 points in these Finals, hitting eight of 12 shots from the floor. That's double what Wade and James have combined to produce, with James contributing a grand total of zero points to the cause.
No wonder the Mavs have outscored the Heat by 15 points in those situations, which explains why the less talented team is the squad with a chance to pop champagne bottles Sunday night.
Maybe Mavs coach Rick Carlisle wasn't crazy when he declared that Nowitzki was one of the top 10 players in NBA history.
A pair of possessions late in the fourth quarter provided a perfect illustration of the difference between the men who shoulder the biggest loads in the first five games of the Finals.
James, the most feared physical specimen in the NBA, settled for a midrange jumper despite a four-inch, 50-pound advantage over defender Jason Kidd. Clank.
Nowitzki, who was long ago slapped with the silly, stereotypical label as a soft Euro, raced down the floor and attacked the basket when he got the rock in transition. He put the ball on the floor with his wounded left hand, blew by Chris Bosh on the baseline and finished with an awkward but effective two-hand slam that gave the Mavericks the lead for good with 2:45 remaining.
That was the third time this series Nowitzki scored a critical bucket by driving hard to the rim. That's pretty impressive for a man whose path to the Hall of Fame has been paved with a ridiculous array of rainbow jumpers.
It's even more impressive considering Miami's march through the Eastern Conference finals was based on lockdown defense during crunchtime. Nowitzki has consistently done what the Boston Celtics' Big Three and MVP Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls couldn't come close to accomplishing.
"That's been our staple," Wade said. "That's the reason that we're here."
But the Heat didn't see an offensive weapon as efficient and ruthless as Nowitzki until they got to this stage.
Nowitzki got plenty of help during the Mavs' 17-4 run to end Game 5, with Jason Terry backing up his barking by scoring eight points in the final 3:23 and Jason Kidd knocking down a 3-pointer and pair of free throws in the last 86 seconds. Nowitzki, however, has been the constant in the crunch-time butt-kickings the Heat have been taking.
Nowitzki has done it despite a torn tendon in his left middle finger suffered late in Game 1. He's done it despite a sinus infection that caused his temperature to soar into the triple digits in Game 4, a storyline the Heat stars scoffed at, going so far as to mock his cough for the television cameras as they left the building following Thursday's shootaround.
As if Nowitzki, the guy who snuck out of the Western Conference title celebration, wanted the drama. He's hardly even cracked a smile since the playoffs started.
"I really can't enjoy it much, because in the playoffs for some reason you're always on edge," Nowitzki said. "You don't sleep much. You think basketball 24/7. I can enjoy it hopefully next week when we're on vacation."
He's one strong finish away from earning the right to really party. That'd certainly be an occasion worthy of smoke machines, except that's not Nowitzki's style.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
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