The Mavericks were eager to end things and seemed closer to doing so until Dwyane Wade rushed to the rescue again, leading a late turnaround in Miami's 98-96 victory in Game 3 of the Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"We're a very strong-willed team," Wade said. "We all believe in each other. When we're down and out, we always feel we can come back."
All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal — coming off the worst playoff performance of his career — had 16 points and 11 rebounds. He briefly overcame his horrendous free-throw shooting, converting two big ones in a 22-7 closing run as the Heat stormed back in the final quarter.
Veteran guard Gary Payton made a 21-foot jumper, his first field goal of the game and only his second of the series, with 9.3 seconds remaining to break a 95-95 tie. Dallas All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki — shooting 90% from the free-throw line in the playoffs — missed a free throw that would have tied the score with under four seconds left.
Wade broke up Nowitzki's lob pass to Josh Howard at the basket as the final buzzer sounded, and many in a sellout crowd of 20,145, who booed the Heat earlier in the quarter, left the arena upbeat as the Heat avoided a historically insurmountable postseason situation.
No team in NBA history has won a playoff series after trailing, 3-0. The Mavericks still lead, 2-1, in the best-of-seven series, but Wade's impressive closing act inspired something that seemed to be waning around here: Hope.
"It didn't look good, it didn't feel good, we were stuck in the mud," Miami Coach Pat Riley said. "But I've seen Dwyane do that before. There's been 10, 12, 14 games this year where we've been down double digits in the fourth quarter, and we have come back.
"And it comes down to one shot. Gary Payton makes the shot. We trust. And we're on to another day."
One that's a lot brighter for the Heat because of Wade.
"Give them some credit," said Dallas Coach Avery Johnson, whose team was outrebounded, 49-34. "Like I've been saying all along, you have two teams that are pretty evenly matched.
"They stormed back, Wade had an incredible game and Shaq made a couple of important free throws. We just couldn't get anything going offensively or defensively, so give them some credit."
Acknowledging they were in trouble, the Heat players came out and played inspired basketball, O'Neal in particular.
The three-time Finals MVP scored a playoff career-low five points and grabbed only six rebounds in the Mavericks' 99-85 blowout in Game 2 at Dallas.
He was active early, scoring and finding teammates (O'Neal had five assists). In another good sign for Miami, O'Neal, who had missed 14 of 16 free-throw attempts in the first two games, connected on his first two at the line.
The Heat led by as many as 10 in the second quarter and took a nine-point halftime lead (52-43), but the Mavericks were only getting started.
Working well together, the Mavericks outscored the Heat, 34-16, in the third and led, 77-68, beginning the fourth.
"I thought in the first half, we didn't play well," said Nowitzki, who scored a team-high 30 points. "But the good thing was, we were in striking distance, only down by nine. That's nothing with our offensive capabilities.
"In the third quarter, we finally started making some shots and moving the ball pretty well. Our defense picked up a little bit and we got a nice little lead. And just at the end, the last couple of minutes, we folded a little bit."
Consecutive 16-foot jumpers by guard Jason Terry (16 points) gave the Mavericks an 89-76 lead with 6 minutes 34 seconds to go.
Then Wade scored nine of Miami's next 12 points, and something was happening.
"We got into sort of a hole," O'Neal said. "We still made a lot of silly mistakes, but we never gave up. We just kept playing, showed a lot of heart, a lot of intensity, and D-Wade played big.
"I hit a couple of free throws, Gary hit a big shot and we were able to win this game tonight."