MIAMI -- Dirk Nowitzki tunes out the drawn-out chants of "Da-vid Hass-el-hoff" at AmericanAirlines Arena pretty easily, because that story he told about humming Hasselhoff tunes at the free-throw line was always supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke.
Heat still on Heat in Game 5
Not so easy to ignore for Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks is the other source of crowd glee down here.
Dallas is facing some serious regrouping after the Mavs' series-turning blown lead in Game 3, a Game 4 blowout and the latest undeniable blow they've absorbed: Friday's news that Jerry Stackhouse will be suspended for Game 5 after his impressive open-floor takedown of Shaquille O'Neal.
Bleak as it looks for the team that went from the brink of a 3-0 series lead to a 2-2 deadlock -- and whose coach, in response, felt the need to move to a new hotel almost an hour away from downtown Miami to sequester themselves from the rest of the world -- one condition in these NBA Finals hasn't changed.
The Heat still need to win Game 5 more than Avery Johnson's Mavs do.
It's actually even more of a priority for the Heat now that Stackhouse, Dallas' top reserve and toughest vet, can't play.
That's because losing at home to the Stack-less Mavs would be quite a psychological blow for Miami to soak in.
That's also because Stack's absence should make it a bit easier for the Mavs to rationalize a Game 5 defeat and then rebound if they go down 3-2
The Heat, as you can imagine, do not want to go back Dallas needing two wins, no matter how unstoppably hot Dwyane Wade suddenly seems. Not after improbably wiggling away once from what one of Pat Riley's longtime rivals, Phil Jackson, affectionately refers to as "death's door."
"What's going to be said about Dallas is what was said about us after the first two games," Riley offered, rejecting any suggestion that the Heat have seized control. "So it all doesn't mean anything. The only thing that counts is getting yourself right and ready without getting ... soft in the mind with what's out there and how this thing is being covered."
Riley's sense of urgency isn't going anywhere. After nearly 20 years since his last ring-winning season with the Lakers -- and having waited a dozen years just to get back to the Finals after his Knicks went to Houston with a 3-2 lead in 1994 only to lose the next two -- he's not even close to satisfied by Miami's told-you-so elimination of Detroit in the East finals and shaming know-it-alls like me who gave Riley's new crew no shot.
"I've never felt more expectation on any team I ever coached than this one," Riley revealed.
Yet Riles shares the same problem as the guy on the other side who's coaching in just his second postseason. The X-and-O men and Shaq are the only participants in these Finals who own championship rings. Everyone else is learning how to function in the Finals as they go.
That includes Nowitzki, who's probably singing sad songs if he has any tunes in his internal iPod these days. He was the consensus best player in the West playoffs, outdueling Tim Duncan and Steve Nash.
But he looked downright shaky in Game 1 and even shakier in Game 4, and he capped his 30-point night in Game 3 by missing a free throw as big as the one he drained in San Antonio to rescue that Game 7 for the Mavs.
In a development no one foresaw, Udonis Haslem and James Posey have combined with their double-team helpers to play more physical, effective defense on Nowitzki than Bruce Bowen or Shawn Marion, bullying the sweetest-shooting big man ever into his old mode of fall-away jumpers.
Yet that has Johnson defending Nowitzki louder than ever.
"How can you not be tough when you've made it to this point?" Johnson said. "There's nobody else that eliminated the world champions but us on their court.
"How many of you [reporters] thought we were going to win Game 7 in San Antonio? Don't raise your hands all at once."
Riley will be telling his players similar stuff, warning them that the Mavs haven't unraveled as much as it seems. He admitted that it would a "hard time now waiting" for Game 5, knowing that the Heat can pump life back into Dallas if they don't capitalize, just as Dallas did for Miami by blowing such a golden Game 3 opportunity.
How do we know? You only have to rewind to the 2005 Finals to remember how fast momentum can be stolen back by the team that seemingly lost it. The Spurs took a breezy 2-0 lead in that series. The Pistons rallied even more emphatically to forge a 2-2 tie, winning their Game 4 at home by a touchdown more than Miami did Thursday night: 31 points.
Then San Antonio emerged from the gloom of a two-day media hammering -- like the Mavs must endure now -- to steal Game 5 in OT and give itself two chances to clinch at home.
Riley remembers it all well, which is why he's cautioning against the idea that Game 3 turned these Finals upside down for good.
"There's always that opportunity that somebody can do something that nobody is going to expect," Riley said. "[The 13-point comeback in the final 6:34] could be the defining moment. We'll only know either eight days from now or less. We'll see."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez
In his postgame press conference, Shaquille O'Neal joked it was gentler than his daughters' love taps, but the NBA found nothing funny or lovable about Jerry Stackhouse's Game 4 flagrant foul, sitting Stack down for Sunday's Game 5. After that, Mavs owner Mark Cuban and coach Avery Johnson weren't amused either.
The German 7-footer is shooting 35.9 percent in the series, and it's hard to point to a single game and say he really played his A Game. Nowitzki's body language has been even more disappointing than the results, flopping in the corner to get calls and seeming to back down every time Haslem and Posey got physical with him.
And those Bird comparisons? Forget it. Talking with other media after the game, nearly every conversation included some variant of: "Larry Bird? Are you kidding? Bird would have knocked out Posey's teeth by now."
The only way Nowitzki still looks like Bird is if you compare him to Howard. Dallas' small forward was the team's second-best player all through the season, and gave a breakout performance in the conference finals against Phoenix. He figured to have an easy time of things considering the Heat struggled to defend opposing small forwards in each of the three previous rounds.
But in the Finals he's been a mess. In two of the four games he's been positively dreadful -- a 3-for-14, five-turnover mess in Game 1 and a 1-for-8, three-point Houdini act in Game 4.
Keep in mind, this was supposed to be a huge advantage. Miami's Antoine Walker is not the fleetest defender in the league, so Howard's quickness figured to be a major Dallas advantage. Andres Nocioni, Richard Jefferson and Tayshaun Prince all took advantage of Walker repeatedly in earlier playoff rounds, so it seems a foregone conclusion that Howard would get the 22.0 points he averaged in the final five games of the Phoenix series. Instead he's averaged 14.2 points on 38.3 percent shooting. The Heat have taken away his drives and forced him to shoot jumpers, and his aim has been shaky all series.
The struggles of the Mavs duo explain nearly all of Dallas' other poor offensive numbers.
Daniel, Texas: Why isn't Dallas running more?
John Hollinger: Dallas wasn't as much of a running team as people imagine. The only time they really push it is when Harris and Terry play together, or when Nowitzki is playing center with Howard and Stackhouse as the forwards, and they've used those lineups much less than they did against San Antonio or Phoenix.
Terry, Copland: What in the world does "fall down 7 times, get up 8" mean? Does that last one mean pretend to fall down and limp for the cameras?
John Hollinger: As a stat guy, I've always been troubled by this. How did he end up on the ground so that he could get up an eighth time? Was the original campaign "Fall down seven, recline one, get up eight"?
Mavericks coach Avery Johnson tells ESPN Radio that the Jerry Stackhouse suspension is ridiculous, humiliating and sickening.
Avery protests suspension
The NBA Shootaround crew weighs in on the Game 5 Jerry Stackhouse suspension.
Shootaround crew debates suspension
• Since the 2-3-2 format was put in place in 1985, only one team, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, has won all three middle games at home.
• Game 5 winner has won 18 of 24 NBA Finals when the series is tied 2-2.
The 6 teams that lost were:
-- ESPN Research
Just before tip-off (on Thursday) I turned to my wife, Sharon, and told her Miami was going to blow Dallas off the court. She looked at me and sweetly replied, "You're nuts."
I am not very good at predictions. After all, I did not have either of these teams playing in the Finals. As a matter of fact, earlier in the day when a gentleman was driving us from the airport to our home I agreed with him that Dallas had a great chance of winning Game 4. In defense of my prognostication, I did not think that Dwyane Wade was going to be 100 percent.
So what changed in the six hours between my prediction other than Wade's superhuman healing power?
It was simply this.
During introductions, which you might agree are a little over the top, there was a brief moment that caught my eye. The last man introduced was Shaquille O'Neal. Unlike the other players from both teams that had jogged down their line of teammates exchanging high fives, low fives and chest bumps, Shaq stopped in front of Pat Riley. He and Riley clasped both hands and had a moment that told me that these two guys knew something no one else knew. This was not your usual, "come on let's get this game started" moment. This was two guys who know championships.
It was a moment that lasted maybe 2.5 seconds at most. After the look, they both nodded. That's when I had a feeling that things were going to be different in this game.
D-Wade's already got the killer jumper, the aerial attacks and the flu game under his belt. Now he's trying to keep pace with MJ in his first Finals appearance. Check out how he's doing:
Here's more on the man they call Flash:
With 36 points in Game 4, Wade has now scored 129 points in the series. That's the second-most points ever scored by an NBA player in his first four career games in the Finals. The top four: Allen Iverson (141), Wade (129), Willis Reed (127) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (127).
-- ESPN Research
Ben, Long Island: Any comments on the "Wade-as-injury-faking-drama-queen" scuttlebutt?
Chris Sheridan: Darrell Armstrong came right out and said that Wade's limping around on Wednesday was solely done for the benefit of TV, and Wade was asked about it at the end of his post-game news conference last night and said, "I'm not a faker."
The postgame comments actually were almost as chippy as the game itself, and these teams have developed a nice little distaste for each other over the course of the first four games. We have Wade the drama queen, Stackhouse hitting Shaq softer than Shaq's daughters, Dirk Hasselhoff choking at the line, Josh Howard claiming Wade can't shoot, Mark Cuban complaining about the humidity. It's becoming a pretty good series, eh?
Mike, Iowa City: Wouldn't Riley be better off starting Posey instead of Walker at the 3 spot?
Chris Sheridan: The problem is that Posey has a game like the one he had on Thursday about once a month. That's why so many teams have given up on him. He follows one good game with nine mediocre ones. Walker is a better offensive player when he's mixing things up, and Riley doesn't need to run the risk of Posey picking up a couple of early fouls that would diminish his effectiveness for the remainder of the game.