FOREWARD: Early in the game we came to find that Dirk Nowitzki was playing through a 101-degree fever. Jason Kidd had one of his worst overall performances of these playoffs. Brendan Haywood gave it his best attempt, but just couldn't will his hip to carry him and never returned after three quick minutes.
Combine that with ...
Rick Carlisle jerking the lever and starting J.J. Barea (for just the third time all year) in place of DeShawn Stevenson. And (less logically, to us) bumping Brian Cardinal up in the rotation in place of Peja Stojakovic. And Jason Terry being termed something less than a "crunch-time clutch player'' in this series by Dirk. And Stevenson accusation of the Heat stars of being "great actors" (we'd say they're more at the "Waiting For Guffman'' level). And maybe most outrageous of all, Jet's challenge to LeBron "Shrinkage'' James.
The dirt was being thrown over a still-twitching body as the fourth-quarter deficit went to nine … and the Mavs win 86-83 behind the fourth-quarter brilliance of a defiant Jason Terry and a feverish Dirk Nowitzki.
The quickest way to describe how these teams are 2-2? They've played four games, two in each city, and are evenly-matched.
But you want more details, right?
YOUR NBATV HIGHLIGHTS PACKAGE: Here's how it looked, highlights-wise:
OK, now allow us to bring you in deeper ...
THE TOP STORY: Do you go with the win? The illness Dirk was fighting through? The absence of LeBron James' offense? Jason Terry backing up his strong words?
To begin, we'll cover two of those storylines:
The UberMan feeling less than "uber" but getting it done just the same, and the improbable win he was able to contribute to, after holding the wings of the Jet just long enough to climb above the illness clawing to drag him down.
At different times over the course of the game, the number varied from 101 to 103 to 102, and seemed to settle at "over 101" until Dirk cleared it up for us.
"It wasn't 103, but it was like 101 this morning," Dirk said, his postgame voice barking and cracking as he was bundled up in a Mavs jacket. "I didn't really have a good night's rest, so it was just under the weather a little bit, but just battle it out."
What was evident after the first 1:26, in which Dirk was 3-of-3 from the floor for all six points that had been scored in the game, was the fact that Nowitzki wasn't himself. His body seemed to be dragged by an undeniable will, but little else.
We've seen some national reports saying they could never tell that Dirk was ill. Look again, friends: No lift in his jumper, especially on the drive. Less energy used up on even things like talking to teammates. And then what tipped it off for us: When on the bench, he was draped in towels and surrounded by water bottles.
We're not going to turn this into The Jordan Flu Game. But Dirk was sick.
"You know, this is The Finals," Dirk said. "You're going to leave it out there. Like I said earlier in the series, I think everybody – it's June. We've been playing on a high level for eight, nine months. So, everybody has a little something going, and this is The Finals. You have to go out there and compete and try you best for your team. So that's what I did."
It's exactly what he did.
After that 3-of-3 start in the first 1:26, Dirk was one of his next 11 from the floor for five points … then he found his way to the line with 8:41 to play in the final period, drilled both and found his offensive flow (to some degree) once more.
Shrugging off the illness pleading with him to slow, to rest, he reasserted his aggressiveness by attacking. Some of them fell, some didn't, but he didn't submit to what his body called for.
After that initial miss, Dirk was 2-of-5, but converted all six of his free-throw attempts and finished with 10 points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter alone.
No, it may not have quite been Jordanesque; as Jet mangled it, "A Jordanism? Really? I don't know about that."
But we'll take our heroic sporting efforts where we can get them. A torn-up finger and a nasty fever and a win and it's about as close as you're going to get on the biggest NBA stage you can find, just as the season appeared to be slipping away as the weight of trailing 3-1 in the series pressed down.
"He did everything he could do,'' said Carlisle of Dirk. "I love the way he played. Fighting through that was not easy."
TY AND JET WITH THE PRESS: Two of the crew:
Video: Mavs make it a series
THE GAME-SEALER: Dallas walked to the court from a timeout with 29.3 seconds to play and a one-point lead. Once more, it was Udonis Haslem defending, and once more the ball found its way into Dirk's hands.
They've certainly figured that out around here, having they? It's always "Demanding Dirk'' now.
With maybe too much time on the clock, Nowitzki found his rhythm and attacked to the right, a mirror image of what he had done to Chris Bosh on the left side in Game 2, and finished with his right hand to put the Mavs up three with nine seconds to play.
Dirk's final stats: 21 points, including 9-of-10 from the line, and 11 rebounds (10 coming in the second half).
It wasn't Jordan. It was pure Dirk.
TERRY BACKS UP HIS WORDS: Jason Terry cast some bulletin-board material the Heat's way, questioning LeBron's ability to stick with him for seven games and labeling Portland the best defense they've seen in these playoffs, and he hit the runway quickly to fulfill his bold proclamations.
In the first quarter, Terry hit the only two shots he attempted and scored seven points in just over six minutes … then he hit some turbulence. Over the second and third quarters combined, Terry was 1-of-6 for two points.
With Dirk also struggling, the Mavs somehow kept the game within reach (we'll get to that in a moment), allowing Jet to repeatedly race around James for easy openings, adhering to the aggression he promised prior to the game.
Terry would continue to attack James, getting by him at least twice off the dribble, and either finish on his own or create opportunities for his teammates … even when he missed, his aggression paid off, as it did when a help defender tipped away Terry's driving floater, leaving Tyson Chandler in a prime position to collect the ball and finish, which he did.
With eight points on 3-of-7 field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter, and a big steal, Terry did what had been able to do in the final period this series. He took it to and through James … and what did LeBron do in the fourth quarter: zero points, 0-of-1 from the floor, two rebounds, one assist and two turnovers.
The final numbers for Terry look like this: 17 points, three assists and three steals.
"The crew was outstanding, and Jet,'' Dirk said of Terry, "took it upon himself to get us back in the game. He was phenomenal.''
LeBron looked worn down by all his 46-minute nights. Jet looked inspired ... inspired by his own seemingly foolish boasts.
His words were more reasoned following the win.
"LeBron's) length obviously is going to bother me if I shoot it in his face, it's going to be contested," Terry said. "So percentages on those shots are going to go down. But if I can get in the paint and draw the defense and then make the pass or make the shot, then that's going to be advantageous for us. That's something I looked to do."
LINEUP CHANGE: You can be assured that Rick Carlisle was/is not pleased that his decision to move JJ Barea into the starting lineup in place of DeShawn Stevenson went public hours before the game was to begin. Eternally close to the vest with such matters, believe that someone heard at least a few harsh words from Carlisle on the subject.
Moving on, Stevenson was asked to move to the bench, and once again proved to be the consummate teammate. Rather than pout or harbor hurt feelings, he put the heart of his team ahead of his own. And, when he was called upon … he may have had his best game of the series.
His offense carried the team as the two best scorers struggled … you read that correctly … his offense … as D-Steve made a trio of 3-pointers, and earned a pair of free throws by attacking the rim.
And, in one of many coaching moves that rang true from Carlisle, he spent a good portion of the night at small forward, defending LeBron rather than Dwyane Wade. (D-Steve at the 3, we've thought all year, is a risky business.) He wasn't alone in this, as Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and others all contributed either directly or otherwise, but he was an integral part in limiting James to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Stevenson played his second-highest minutes total of these playoffs (25:38), and the most he's seen against the Heat, including clutch minutes down the stretch, hounding whoever he was asked to.
For all the hoopla over Barea moving into the starting lineup, what Stevenson provided from the bench (including allowing Shawn Marion's minutes to be curbed, a stated goal from Carlisle prior to the game … again, one of many of the coach's moves that seemed to work perfectly) was as big as anything in determining the outcome of Game 4 … and tying the series.
"He's a pro," Carlisle said. "He just kept himself ready all year. The threes he knocked won in the first half were huge, because we were fighting though some deficits there. And, he was one of the guys that set the tone defensively for us in the fourth."
On a side note: While Terry backed up his strong words, LeBron supported Stevenson's accusation of blatant flops, or Hollywood level acting, by doing just that when he did his impression of getting run over by a semi … playing the role of the semi: Brendan Haywood's pinky nail.
WHAT ABOUT BAREA: Did it work?
JJ Barea had his best shooting night of the series … which isn't exactly the greatest compliment as he was 3-of-9, but he did remain aggressive and found his way into the paint, creating for himself and others.
He finished with four assists, but could easily have had more if others had been hitting the open shots he served them with in the middle portion of the game.
It wasn't great, but there were signs … signs that Barea may have rounded the corner to better things. (Also helpful: He has no problem surviving Mike Bibby.) We'll have to wait to see how Game 5 goes, but there is reason to hope that Barea may be ascending from the depths his shot-making had fallen to.
NO HARM, NO FOUL: We'll briefly touch on two topics here: Jason Kidd and Brian Cardinal.
Jason Kidd picked the wrong time to have one of his worst playoff games of the season. He finished with no points, missing all three of his shots, three rebounds, three assists and four turnovers … on the positive side, he also added a block and three steals.
Some of this may have come from the demands being placed upon him by the lineup change. With Stevenson on the bench, Kidd opened on LeBron and seldom found the benefit of an "easy" defensive assignment.
What we saw from J-Kidd early: He was trying to pass the ball in ways that could give his team a five-run homer. He must know better.
The final piece of the rotation change: Brian Cardinal was handed the minutes that had been going to Peja Stojakovic (who played on two seconds, put in on an inbounds play when Miami was sure to foul intentionally).
Cardinal played the physical defense we've come to expect from him. This style of play also seemed to throw Chris Bosh out of the near dominant offensive game he had been delivering.
Bosh had 16 points at the half, and only eight after – including only two in the final period.
The Custodian also knocked some people around; Mario Chalmers is still feeling one of his screens, and the in-the-paint wrasslin' seems helpful. Still, we don't know whether to applaud Rick for his derring-do here or wonder if Peja isn't still due for a breakout game.
THIS IS TYSON CHANDLER: This is why Tyson Chandler is here. This is why we've thrown so much praise his way over the course of the season. This is a significant part of the reason the Mavs now find themselves in The Finals, and tied at 2-2.
Chandler finished with 13 points, 16 rebounds (including an impressive nine on the offensive end), one steal and one nice assist off a drive-and-kick that led to a Marion dunk.
His energy was relentless, his ferocity prevalent, and his impact undeniable.
When Wade seemed to catch him a little off-guard and block a dunk attempt, he came back the only way he knows how: with force.
"(Wade) caught me at a good time on the first time," Chandler said. "The second time I was making sure either I was going to put the ball on the rim or him."
QUOTEBOARD: "And obviously, yeah, we would love to get Game 5 here. Don't want to go to Miami down 3-2 knowing they have two chances to close us out. Big game Thursday. Like I said, I thought out defense won us the game. To give up 14 points to an explosive team with LeBron, with Bosh and Wade on one team, if you give up 14 points in the quarter to close it out, I think that's huge. ... So, hopefully we can carry that defense over to Game 5, and then we'll see what happens." - Dirk
MAVSELLANEOUS: Who says you can't win with zone? Dallas used a stifling zone defense for most of the fourth quarter, preventing Miami from scoring a field goal for a notable seven minutes and 15 seconds. ... "The doctors tried to get (Dirk's fever) down, they really couldn't keep it under control,'' said Tyson Chandler of Dirk. "He's got unbelievable heart. We all saw him go through (practice). He was barely able to talk, coughing and wheezing. We knew the supporting cast would have to step it up and get it for him.'' ... Surviving Bibby? He failed to score, he dished out one assist and he missed his only shot attempt. Maybe they should move Chalmers into the starting five ... Shawn Marion scored 16 and was also key to a defense that limited Miami to 42.7-percent shooting. ... For all of Dwyane Wade's brilliance - in the last 10 minutes he was the only Heater who scored a field goal - he did miss the huge FT with 29 seconds left. And he did fail to receive the ball cleanly on the final inbounds play. None of these guys are SuperFriends, really, you know. ... LeBron scored just eight points, his lowest-scoring playoff effort ever. That's another reason this is one of the most significant Mavs game ever.
WHO IS THIS GUY: In yet another attempt from a media member to vault into the spotlight (maybe the TV networks should quit putting the cameras on our clownish colleagues, Fox' Jason Whitlock -- who we promise you doesn't attend a great number of Mavs games -- attempts to get oddly cozy with Rick:
We know who he is. And now that he's been on TV, so does the world, we suppose.
NUMBERS-CRUNCHING: It's math!
*This is the 27th time that the Finals have been tied 2-2. Of the previous 26 times, the winner of Game 5 has won the series 19 times.
*Dallas shot 39.7 percent. It's the first win shooting below 40 percent in the postseason since 4/25/09 vs. San Antonio Dallas' record in that circumstance is 4-22 since 2001.
*Dallas outscored Miami 21-9 in the final 9:58.
*Dirk and Terry combined to score 18 of the Mavs 21 fourth-quarter points.
*Dallas hit 8-of-16 shots in the first quarter while holding Miami to 7-of-24 attempts (29.2 percent), but thanks to turnovers and allowing the Heat to grab nine offensive rebounds (compared to ten total for Dallas), the game was tied at 21.
*After being out-rebounded 16-10 in the first quarter, including 9-2 on the offensive glass, Dallas responded by winning the battle of the boards over the final three quarters 31-28, and 10-6 on the offensive glass.
WAS DIRK LIKE JORDAN?: Here. If you have time, watch some old Jordan stuff. The Flu Game.
In that game, Michael Jordan scored 38 points, with seven rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Dirk Nowitzki was 6-of-19 from the field for 21 points, with 11 rebounds and one assist. So ... no. But who cares?
What matters is that he and his team find a way to be better than their opponents. (Though the fact that Dirk Nowitzki has outscored LeBron James 44-9 in the fourth quarter in these Finalsis delicious.
THE FINAL WORD: It belongs to the audience at the AAC, which understands what it just witnessed -- and we hope you do, too:
This was a defining game and a defining moment. For Dirk and for the rest. Or better ... a re-defining moment. For so many who still don't believe what they just saw, who still don't believe in the combined possibilities of effort, talent, character and unity.