Commentary

After crazy comeback, Mavs keepin' cool

Originally Published: June 3, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Dirk NowitzkiRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesThat fist pump above from Dirk is about as much excitement as you'll see from Dallas after Game 2.

MIAMI -- It's a trade that Dirk Nowitzki would have happily made before the Dallas Mavericks ever touched down to play two games in the beach house filled with white T-shirts and bad memories.

Torn tendon in his left middle finger for a road split in the NBA Finals?

"I'll take it," Nowitzki said early Friday morning, not exactly smiling as he marched to the team bus ... but definitely not looking for the nearest exercise bike to kick on the way out of AmericanAirlines Arena.

Nowitzki and his Mavericks finally know how it feels to leave this place with a playoff win, thanks to a Game 2 in the teams' five-years-later Finals reunion in which they Miami'd Miami.

Just when it looked as though the Mavs would surely lose on their graveyard court, in the shadows of South Beach, for the fifth time in five Finals tries, they scrambled back from 15 points down with 6:19 to play. After all dunks and layups that the visitors absorbed for three and a half quarters, Dallas dug out a 95-93 escape that didn't just make this a 1-1 series.

The Comeback Fossils -- since kids doesn't really work when you remember what Nowitzki has been calling Jason Kidd all week -- made even Dwyane Wade wonder how much damage Miami did to itself by prancing around and then relaxing when a 2-0 lead seemed certain.

"Obviously, you know, we gave them -- and they gave themselves -- life," Wade said.

No one knows the feeling better than the few Dallas holdovers from 2006. Assistant coach Darrell Armstrong, still a player on the Mavericks '06 squad, speaks often of that fatal Game 3 against the Heat in which the Mavs blew a 13-point lead over Miami in the final 6:34 and never recovered, losing four straight games from the brink of a 3-0 lead.

"I always like to tell players, 'You can't give teams confidence,'" Armstrong said. "We gave them confidence in that last six minutes and 34 seconds [in 2006]. When we didn't finish that game, we weren't the same team. And then all of a sudden, they became a different team."

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
David Dow/NBAE/Getty ImagesDirk was finally able to walk off Miami's floor with a Finals win.

There's naturally no guarantee that it'll play out the same way this time, but the Mavericks head home now with confidence coursing through their veins and brains again, having manufactured yet another resurrection from a seemingly unsavable position to go with their earlier epic comebacks against the Lakers and the Thunder.

They never really worried about the splint on Nowitzki's left middle finger, knowing how well he's historically played hurt ... and knowing how quietly prideful he is about his status as that rare European import with an iron-man rep. Teammates actually have been teasing him for much of the past 48 hours -- questioning how he ever could sustain a "mallet finger" given all the fingertip push-ups his eccentric shot doctor, Holger Geschwindner, makes him do every day -- but Nowitzki's hands suddenly do look almost as strong as Kidd's. He had as many strips and tips as baskets in his 6-for-17 struggle until that final decisive flurry, then surprised no one in the Mavs' traveling party with those nine game-turning points in the last 2:44.

As Geschwindner said with little hint of outward concern even before Game 2: "Hey, [Rajon] Rondo played with one arm, so [Nowitzki] might be able to play with nine fingers."

The optimism stems more from the stuff the Mavs didn't know or expect, such as hearing that they just became the first road team to win a game in Miami since the Milwaukee Bucks way back on April 6. More juice comes from Shawn Marion playing the best two-way ball of his Dallas career, which has made Marion the Mavs' second-best player for a stretch of three straight games if you go back to his eruption in the Game 5 clincher over Oklahoma City. Dallas, furthermore, also might have relocated Jason Terry -- whose own eight-point flurry put Nowitzki in position to win it -- and definitely responded to Rick Carlisle's ceaseless calls for better board work by outrebounding Miami by a solid 41-30.

Yet you can safely assume that this postseason's masters of the even keel won't be getting too excited about what they just salvaged. That's partly because of the injuries carried by Nowitzki (finger), Terry (wrist) and Brendan Haywood (hip). But it's mostly because of Miami's dunkfest to build such a healthy lead and the corresponding defense at the other end that, even in triumph, Nowitzki called "almost suffocating."

The way Miami has been swarming Dirk, combined with the speed and length with which the Heat rotate back to shooters after the double-teams, prompted Nowitzki to tell Hannah Storm in a postgame "SportsCenter" sitdown that the D the Mavs are seeing is "probably the best we've seen in the playoffs." Meaning the whole Nowitzki-Mark Cuban era.

So ...

Dallas knows that the notion of beating these guys three straight times at home -- no matter how foolish the Heat were to start flexing as though Game 2 were wrapped up -- is too ambitious to even discuss. Nowitzki was asked how he plans to approach the next three games and responded by saying he'll talk about only one.

Nowitzki was asked how he plans to approach the next three games and responded by saying he'll talk about only one.

"You can't get a split and get a huge emotional win in Game 2 and then go home and lose Game 3," Nowitzki said. "As far as I'm concerned, this next one is the biggest game of them all."

History suggests that that's more than just prudent restraint at the postgame podium. In the 11 times that the Finals have been tied 1-1 since the NBA instituted the 2-3-2 format in 1985, Game 3's winner has gone on to win the series all 11 times.

So they settled for a limited amount of chest-thumping in the AAA's cramped visitors locker room. Steve Nash was a surprise guest, having dropped into town to check up on a couple of his favorite former teammates: Nowitzki and Kidd. But that was the extent of the party.

That and the satisfied glances flashing around the room among the stubborn vets who had done it again.

"Look," Carlisle said. "This was not a conventional game. We all know that. [But] if you're going to win a championship, you've got to have the wherewithal to hang in there when things are tough. You have to keep believing."

Translation: As more than one Mavs official has privately noted since this ride gathered steam with their second-round sweep of the Lakers, winning a championship often demands that you win a playoff game or two that you probably shouldn't have won.

Now they've got three of those.

There was the comeback from 16 points in Game 1 on the Lakers' floor. Then the Mavericks' rally from 15 down in the final five minutes of Game 4 in OKC. Followed by the 22-5 finishing kick Thursday night that gave Dallas the first Finals comeback from a 15-point deficit since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls did something similar to Portland in 1992.

"Have you seen us play before?" Marion said, still sensing skepticism from a media member hovering near his stall.

"When you're hungry, you're hungry."

Taking his own turn at the podium later, Marion added: "I've been here two years, and we've been a good road team. We like the road for some reason."

Even Miami.

At last.


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics