How different might our impression of Dwyane Wade have been in the next few years if Jason Terry's three-pointer at the buzzer had gone in Tuesday night?
Terry's shot, a good look that would have sent Game 6 of the NBA Finals to overtime had it gone in, bounced out, and when Wade grabbed the rebound the Miami Heat could celebrate a 95-92 win over the Dallas Mavericks that completed a stunning comeback from 2-0 down in the series, brought the NBA title to Florida for the first time and anointed MVP Wade an unqualified hero.
Just nine seconds before, Wade, with a chance to ice the game from the free-throw line, had missed twice. For all his heroics in this series -- and make no mistake, he's the main reason the Heat are champions today -- he'd have had to live with the goat's horns if the Mavs had tied the game on Terry's shot, won in overtime, then won Game 7.
That's a lot of ifs, each more unlikely than the last, and all of that couldn't have been Wade's fault, but it would have been his misses with 9.1 seconds left in Game 6 that left the door open.
Wade made another mistake right before he missed those free throws, committing a loose-ball foul on the rebound of a Mavericks miss with 11.5 seconds to go and the Heat up by five. You concede that rebound, keep the clock running and make the Mavs earn their points.
I can tell you right now that we're all going to forget those misses -- we've already forgotten the foul -- and the next time Wade steps to the line with a big game riding on his free throws, we're all going to figure he's got them made, because he's clutch. That's how clutch works. Once we've figured out that a guy is clutch, we remember the clutch and forget the chokes.
And Wade really is clutch. Life is complicated.
I bring all this up, rather than talking about the stellar play of Alonzo Mourning and the rest of the Heat reserves and role-players -- especially Udonis Haslem and James Posey, who both played beautifully, both grabbed the crucial rebound of Wade's second missed free throw, and then both traveled, a tag-team turnover without which Terry also wouldn't have had his chance -- because I want to talk about Dirk Nowitzki.
I come not to bury Nowitzki, about whom I've written several times over the past two years that, fabulous player that he is, he's not a guy who can lead a team to a championship. It would appear that I've been right, as Nowitzki failed to step up and dominate in this series the way Wade did for Miami, and the Mavericks managed to become only the third team in Finals history to blow a 2-0 lead.
Nowitzki averaged 26.6 points in the regular season. In the Memphis series he averaged 31.3. Against San Antonio it was 27.1, but with 13.3 rebounds, four more than his season average. In the win over Phoenix his numbers were 28.0 and 13.2.
In the Finals, Nowitzki averaged 22.8 points, failing to score more than 20 three times in six games. He added 10.8 rebounds per game, and he had 29 points and 15 rebounds in Game 6, big-time numbers.
But he all but disappeared in the fourth quarter Tuesday, not scoring until 9:03 had been played.
And then in the last half-minute of the season he made two of his patented bonehead crunchtime plays. First he fouled Wade as the Heat star dribbled along the perimeter, the result of Nowitzki not moving his feet on defense. The Dallas fans, convinced the refs and the league had stacked the deck against their team, booed the obviously correct call.
Then, with 17 seconds left and the Mavs down by three, Nowitzki tried to feed Erick Dampier in the lane with a tricky pass in traffic on a pick-and-roll. Dampier wasn't able to handle it and the Heat recovered the loose ball.
That led to two clutch free throws for Wade -- we'll remember those; the ones we're forgetting came eight seconds later -- and yes, you read that right, with the game on the line, Nowitzki, one of the most devastating scorers in the league, with high-octane teammates Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse on the floor, not to mention medium-octane Josh Howard, was trying to make a difficult pass to Dampier.
After Wade made his free throws, the Mavs called timeout. Nowitzki took the ball and slammed it to the floor. Here's what I wrote in my notes: "He's done. Mavs won't score again unless Miami just lets them."
Miami did let them -- Wade's foul, remember? -- and on the fateful last possession, Nowitzki contended himself with setting a screen for Terry. It was a good screen. It freed Terry for the good look he got. The shot just didn't go down, which happens.
And it wasn't an indefensible play, strategy-wise. Terry tries more threes than Nowitzki and, ever so slightly, makes them at a higher rate. That's true with James Posey and Dwyane Wade for the Heat. Posey shoots more and makes more. But with the season on the line, can you picture Wade setting a screen and Posey taking the big shot?
And for all that, well, this spectacular pratfall by the Mavericks wasn't Nowitzki's fault. He played hard and played well throughout the playoffs, and the Mavs wouldn't have sniffed the Finals, never mind Game 6 of the Finals, without him.
There's no great shame in not being a go-to guy, in being a great player, but not a leader, not the guy everybody looks to when the chips are on the table. Nowitzki is that. With a go-to guy on his team, not necessarily a superstar like Wade but just a good player who can be counted on to keep his head when those around him are losing theirs, to have his best moments at the biggest moments, Nowitzki can win a title yet. Or three.
In the meantime, his Mavericks lost to a better team, one that was able to come back from that 2-0 deficit and that 13-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 3. One that has that guy Nowitzki isn't: Dwyane Wade.
The Heat remade their roster in the off-season, bringing in a bunch of guys who had been starters and first and second offensive options and asking them to fill roles. It looked like a recipe for disaster, for a season of whining and ball hogging.
But with the leadership of Pat Riley, who took over as coach from Stan Van Gundy in a move that was criticized in many quarters -- including this one -- as being just as bad as the roster overhaul, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams blended into a terrific set of complements to Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, who also happily took a secondary role.
Shaq was almost a nonfactor in Game 6, scoring nine points and sitting for long periods with foul trouble, including a first-half stretch in which Miami, down early, rallied to get back in the game behind the strong play of Mourning.
It just goes to show you never can quite tell what's going to add up to a title. Having a great player who's big in the clutch helps, even if we have to forget the occasional nonclutch mistake as we celebrate his brilliance.
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