King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA Finals: After a Game 4 scorching by the Heat, the Mavericks look like toast. Just like the Heat did two games ago.

Published June 16, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

Must resist the temptation. Cannot give in and type ... what sportswriter DNA ... is forcing me to ... must ... resist.

Ah hell: The Mavericks are toast!

Wait! The NBA Finals are only tied. The Miami Heat clubbed Dallas with blunt objects Thursday, to the tune of 98-74, bringing to 2-2 a series that once looked like a Mavs runaway. It's now a best-of-three, with two of the three games scheduled for Dallas if it goes the distance.

Once upon a time, the Mavericks were on their way to the title. They won the first two games in Dallas with relative ease, then had a 13-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Miami.

Since then, not a single thing has gone right for them. In 54 and a half minutes of basketball, they've been outscored 120-81.

And that's not even the really bad part. It's just the hooboy, that's pretty bad part. The really bad part is that the score difference is legit. The Heat are pushing the Mavericks around, and in doing so they've brought something out of hiding that Mavericks fans hadn't wanted to see.

The old Mavericks. The soft Mavericks. The Dirk Nowitzki settling for jumpers, going 2-for-14, crying to the refs and managing to get injured with the biggest pile of chips on the table Mavericks.

Those Mavericks.

We all thought those Mavericks were dead and buried, transformed by coach Avery Johnson into a club that adjusts to its opponent, plays tough defense, attacks the basket. When Johnson took over from Don Nelson last year, I thought that was all this talented bunch needed to go from contender to champ, but I overestimated Nowitzki's ability to step up as the go-to guy.

Or maybe I was just early. This year, Nowitzki has stepped up, rivaling the Heat's Dwyane Wade as the best player in the postseason. And just when I'm convinced, with Dallas dominating the NBA Finals -- well, we're back where we began. Am I ever going to be right about this guy, or this team?

We sportswriters are hard-wired to believe that whatever's happening at the moment is just going to keep on happening, so clearly the Mavs are a burned-out husk, a pile of ashes, a mere speed bump, if I may mix dismissive metaphors, on the Heat's road to their first championship. Two more wins for Miami and it's over.

Just like it was two games ago, only it was the Heat who were cooked.

So let's settle down here. The new Nowitzki has had two bad games out of four, and he missed a crucial free throw in Game 3, one of his two good games, that it would have been a really good idea to make. But before we write him off, let's keep in mind how he keeps coming back every time it looks like the old Dirk is ready to emerge.

He came back from a bad Game 4 in the semifinals against Phoenix by scoring 50 in Game 5. He rebounded from a weak Game 1 in this series by scoring 56 points and grabbing 23 rebounds in the next two games.

A year ago in the playoffs, Nowitzki showed twice in one second-round series why he wasn't the kind of guy who could be counted on to lead a team to the championship. He trashed Erick Dampier to the media following a Game 1 loss to the Suns, then screamed at another, more important teammate, Jason Terry, on the court during the Game 6 defeat that sent the Mavs home.

That's not leadership. It's bellyaching.

A year later, Nowitzki seemed to have turned a corner, become the guy the Mavs look to, not just because he's the best player, but because he's the main man, the leader. I don't know if the credit should go to Johnson, in his first full year as Nowitzki's coach, but I do know that after Game 4, with Nowitzki seeming to backslide, with drives to the rim replaced by jumpers and whining about uncalled fouls, Johnson called him out.

"They're putting a blanket over him and he's going to have to get that blanket off him," Johnson said of the tough defense by the Heat, mostly by Udonis Haslem and James Posey. "I've tried to get a team that really don't complain, just play."

That's how you send a message to a guy, Dirk.

So, come on, waffle boy: Are the Mavericks really toast?

I don't think so, but they've got a tougher task ahead of them now than they did four games ago. Momentum, it has been said, is something you have until you don't have it anymore, but for now, the Heat have it.

They have Wade playing out of his goldarn mind, and they have Shaquille O'Neal, who's been playing his own game of is he or isn't he toast, looking young and lively, active on defense, coming out high to "show" on the pick and roll, banging down low, even making the odd free throw now and again.

And Shaq always benefits from an extra day off, which he'll get before Game 5 Sunday.

But the Mavs still have all their strengths, assuming Nowitzki can relocate the new Dirk. They're still deeper -- even though Miami's bench, struggling early in the series, finally came up with some big contributions in Game 4 -- still quicker, still more versatile.

Sure, Nowitzki rolled his ankle in Game 4, but Wade twisted his knee in Game 3, and, as the players like to say, everybody's hurting at this time of year.

This has turned into the same kind of strange series we had last year in the Finals, with one team and then the other dominating, and the whole thing winding up even after mostly lopsided games.

Each team has taken a big punch. The Heat got off the deck to hit back. Now it's up to the Mavericks to do the same. I think they will. I think it's going seven, and I still think I'm finally going to end up having to admit once and for all that for all those years I was wrong about Nowitzki.

Previous column: Stanley Cup, World Cup

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