MIAMI -- You saw it. You felt it. You could sense in every way that the locals and neutrals everywhere were headed for a gloomy, broomy, anticlimactic end to these wonderfully tense playoffs.
Wade has no room for doom
Dwyane Wade certainly must have sensed all that, because he wouldn't let it happen.
Add those forces up and you get the formula that hauled the Miami Heat out of a huge fourth-quarter hole and saved them -- and anyone else not ready for this season to finish -- from a likely sweep.
Nowitzki sullied his 30-point outing and helped the Heat tremendously by missing his first six shots and, most crucially and uncharacteristically, his second of two late free throws that might have forced overtime. Yet Miami never would have been able to turn that massive miss into a 98-96 Game 3 triumph if Wade hadn't uncorked the biggest game-turning salvo of his life in the final six minutes.
"The only trouble is that when we're down by 12, he's pacing himself, waiting for the end," Riley joked.
Not that Riley was really feeling that loose. Miami was actually down 13 points with 6:34 to play, on top of the daunting 2-0 series deficit it brought home from Dallas, with Wade carrying five fouls and hobbled anew after Shaq had crashed into his knee.
The end couldn't have looked much nearer, after all those overtimes and buzzer-beaters and seven-game marathons in the first three rounds of this postseason.
"It didn't look good," Riley said, deadly serious this time.
It honestly looked like the Mavs would be seizing a 3-0 series lead as early as the final few minutes of the third quarter or about the time that Dallas' Josh Howard sank a free throw for his 20th point. Howard made the next to give Dallas a 72-66 lead, Wade missed an easy layup on Miami's next trip down and the Mavs' record this season when Howard scores at least 20 -- an unblemished 25-0 coming in -- immediately came to mind.
The Mavs' momentum mushroomed even after Wade sank an all-net triple from the corner to start the fourth, slicing Dallas' edge to 77-71. That's because Wade, just 64 seconds into that final period, had picked up his fifth foul.
Yet he somehow managed to complete Tuesday's final 10:56 without collecting foul No. 6 and that was merely one of Wade's fourth-quarter feats. In that final six and a half minutes, from that 13-point ditch, Wade outscored the Mavs himself by a healthy 12-7. Throw in Shaq's miraculous two free throws with 1:48 to play, Gary Payton's go-ahead jumper with 9.3 ticks left and Nowitzki's jaw-dropping miss and maybe we do have a series, America.
"I just think we relaxed," Howard said. "I mean, that's the only thing I can say."
"The basketball gods were good to us tonight," he offered. "That's all you can say."
Debate it if you wish, but there was no disputing that Wade was plenty good when Miami had to have his best. Somebody was saying the other day that brilliance from Wade was the Heat's only hope for recovery in this series, given Dallas' dedication to (and effectiveness in) swarming O'Neal, its superior (younger, faster and deeper) supporting cast and Miami's lack of a sure-thing shooter to take some pressure off its two stars.
Sure enough, Wade responded. Shaq did rebound from his Game 2 nightmare with pretty passable production in the face of those double-teams -- 16 points, 11 boards and five assists -- but Erick Dampier basically matched that. O'Neal also had seven turnovers.
In almost every area, Wade was Miami's difference.
Forty-two points in total.
Twenty-one in each half.
He also pulled down a team-high 13 rebounds -- compared to 14 in the first two games -- to help Miami become just the third team all season to outboard Dallas by double digits and the first since January.
"We do feel we gave this game away," Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse said.
You could understand that sentiment, just as you had to know Wade believes he took it from them.
It'd be a stretch to say Miami has snatched the momentum of the whole Finals with one comeback victory, stirring as it was, since all of the Heat's problems witnessed in Dallas were in evidence here, too.
Yet now you can say, without hesitation, that we have a two-team Finals.
Said Wade: "At [89-76], looking up at the score, I'm thinking, 'No, I ain't going out like this.' We didn't want to go down 3-0, man. I just looked over at Coach right away [after his fifth foul] and I was like, 'Don't take me out.' I just hit the 3, so I wanted to see what I could do after that."
He wanted to see if he could give these playoffs one more fantastic finish.
You suspect that for the locals and the neutrals, one more fantastic finish -- a league-record 15th in these playoffs decided by two points or less -- will do.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
With the shot clock ticking toward zero, Heat guard Gary Payton makes his one and only shot of the night, the eventual game-winner.
What's next? Dirk calling himself the Big Lederhosen and Shaq admitting he was humming Hasselhoff?
You couldn't ask for a crazier reversal of fortune than what transpired at the end of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Shaq was calm and clutch, and Dirk was the guy with a hitch in his free-throw stroke.
Anyone know how to say "role reversal" in German?
"I was a little strong," Nowitzki said, his hindsight obviously impaired since he actually came up a little short on the fateful missed free throw with 3.4 seconds left, "so obviously this is going to be a tough one to swallow."
Tough indeed, especially since Nowitzki was a 94 percent free-throw shooter over the first two games and had knocked down 10 of his first 11 on this game. But nothing is quite as unsettling and rattling as having to make a big one from the line when it counted most, and Nowitzki's uncharacteristic miss left the Mavs trailing 97-96 with 1.8 seconds left.
"Like I said, it was a free throw that I usually make. I don't know what happened," he said.
Nowitzki's big miss might not have even occurred if not for a pair of clutch makes by O'Neal with 1:48 remaining, trimming a five-point deficit to three. This is a guy, lest you forget, who went 1-for-9 in Game 1, 1-for-7 in Game 2 and had a miss in the second half of Game 3 that bounced so hard off the back rim that the ball actually bounced over and behind the backboard. Go down to your local gym or playground and just try doing that yourself. I'll give you 1,000 tries, and I'll bet you can't do it once.
"I got in trouble, say about '94, '95 just by listening to people. And I was trying to do things different. There's a whole saying that if you do things different, then it won't be good. So I just went back to the way I used to shoot it when I was little and a youngster. Believe it or not, I used to have a pretty good percentage when I was a good player," O'Neal said.
Actually, O'Neal has never shot better than 62 percent as a pro, and he did that just four years ago in his next to last season with the Lakers. He has been a sub-.500 foul shooter over the course of a season five times, including the last three, and his shooting in this series threatened to become an even bigger part of his legacy than it already was.
But those two makes from the line with 1:49 left helped change that legacy and this series, and Nowitzki's big miss didn't exactly put him into the books as Mr. Uberclutch. No doubt he went to bed Tuesday night reliving that fateful miss, while Shaq undoubtedly became The Big Deepsleeper after knocking down his two.
When each of them awakes Wednesday morning, a whole new day will be dawning before them. But it wouldn't have been that way without each of them turning into the other when it counted most.
-- Chris Sheridan at American Airlines Arena in Miami
The Mavericks led the Heat 89-76 with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Miami rebounded for a 98-96 victory in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The last team to win an NBA Finals game in which it trailed by 13 or more points during the fourth quarter was Michael Jordan's Bulls, against the Trail Blazers in Game 6 of the 1992 Finals. Portland led 79-64 to start the fourth quarter, but the Bulls won the game 97-93 and with it their second championship.
• World turned upside down? Dwyane Wade led the Heat in rebounds (13) on Tuesday night and Shaquille O'Neal led the team in assists (five). Actually, it was the 16th time that Shaq led his team outright in assists in a postseason game but the first since joining the Heat.
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Gary Payton's one and only shot was huge, and Dwyane Wade's 42-point, 13-rebound performance helped the Heat rally for a 98-96 win, cutting the Mavs' series lead to 2-1.
Glove's Still A Big Shot
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Heat guard Dwyane Wade knocks the ball out of the way, preventing Josh Howard from tying the game on the final play.
Quote of the Day
Quote of the Day, Part 2
-- Chris Ramsay at American Airlines Arena in Miami
The Miami Heat showed the resolve of a desperate team on Tuesday night and as a result have gotten themselves back into the NBA Finals.
Dwyane Wade was the difference maker in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 points and refusing to let the Heat die after falling behind by 13 points midway through.
The Heat were much more aggressive in their first home game in the series. They started quickly and made a concerted effort to push the ball up the floor at every opportunity in the first half. They created turnovers, rebounded relentlessly and attacked with early offense throughout the first half. As opposed to Games 1 and 2 in Dallas when the Heat seemed almost afraid to push the tempo, Miami played with confidence and purpose, looking for the first good available shot. The result was a nine-point halftime lead and, for the first time this series, they put consecutive quarters together.
Dallas eventually got its confidence flowing and the Heat grew tentative, feeling the pressure of falling behind 3-0. The Mavs rolled throughout the last half of the third quarter and first six minutes of the fourth quarter. When the barrage ended, the Mavs had a 13-point lead and appeared to have the Heat on the verge of throwing in the towel.
That's when Wade took over. As a result, it's Mavs 2, Heat 1.
-- Tim Legler at American Airlines Arena in Miami
It's true that almost anything Dirk Nowitzki does in this series will be reduced to a footnote in German newspapers.
That's how big the World Cup is.
But the biggest expert I could find on such matters says all that changes if Nowitzki can lead the Dallas Mavericks to their first-ever NBA championship.
Boris Becker made his first appearance at these Finals on Tuesday night and told me Nowitzki moves into the most elite company possible if the 7-footer can conquer a sport so few are playing in their native country.
"It would put him in a category with a Beckenbauer, a Schumacher," Becker said, referring to German soccer icon Franz Beckenbauer and Formula One racing legend Michael Schumacher.
Becker neglected to put himself in the same category, but Nowitzki certainly would. Tennis and team handball were the first sports Nowitzki played as a kid and Becker, a three-time Wimbledon champion and former world No. 1, ranks as one of Nowitzki's original sporting heroes.
Of course, having lived in Miami for a time, Becker is also a Heat fan.
"In this series," Becker said, "I have two hearts."
He has a new part-time job, too. Becker was in the house for Game 3 as a TV analyst for the Premiere network, an offer he was moved to accept to support Nowitzki and because of the sport's growing profile in Germany.
"That's why I'm here," Becker said.
-- Marc Stein at American Airlines Arena in Miami
"Work smarter, not harder" is a popular mantra in business these days, but for Miami in Game 3 it was more the opposite case.
The Heat made one mental error after another, especially in the first half, but played so much harder than they had in the first two games that it didn't matter. While much attention is being lavished on the Heat's comeback from 13 points down in the final six minutes -- and deservedly so -- Miami was the aggressor right out of the gate, and only a third-quarter blip prevented them from an easy win.
"Pat [Riley] just said stop making silly mistakes and just hang in there," said Shaquille O'Neal, "and that's what we did."
Miami's hustle and persistence were in evidence all over the stat sheet. Start with the offensive glass, where the Heat yanked down 16 offensive boards, including eight from Udonis Haslem. Compare that total to the first two games, when the Heat had a total of 15 caroms, and you quickly understand the scale of the increase in effort.
"They outhustled us," said Dallas coach Avery Johnson. "This is the way we normally beat teams, on the boards. Haslem really hurt us on the offensive glass and just outhustled and outworked us pretty much throughout the game."
Then there were the free throws. Miami got to the line 34 times on Tuesday, its largest total of the series, including 18 attempts by Dwyane Wade. It was Wade's persistence in driving to the basket, more than anything else, which eventually opened things up for the other Miami players and allowed Miami's moribund offense to finally awaken.
"Shaq told us, don't settle for jump shots," said Wade. "Take the ball to the basket strong, especially if they're not coming off him."