DALLAS -- The Mavericks will take this matchup every time. A one-eyed Chris Bosh gets a single shot to win Game 3, after which Dirk Nowitzki is given two chances to reply. That Miami won 88-86 to take a 2-1 lead in the Finals is why this series has a chance to become one of the best in modern times. Little is predictable, and nothing is without drama.
Bosh had made 15 of 52 field goals in these Finals, and all of them meant less than the 16-footer that came in the final minute Sunday. Never mind that the winner of Game 3 in these situations had gone on to win all 11 NBA Finals under the current 2-3-2 format. Neither Bosh nor LeBron James was thinking about any of the back-story numbers as the shot went up from the left elbow as if Bosh had made a career of enthusiastically mimicking Kobe Bryant.
"I don't care if he missed 15 in a row, he was wide open and that's his sweet spot," James said. "It's the trust we have in each other's ability, no matter what point of the game is at."
Wasn't this the original idea last summer? For James to share the ball with fellow stars capable of fulfilling his faith? All season long there has been a cackling school of thought that Bosh is not up to the responsibility of starring alongside James (17 points and nine assists) and Dwyane Wade (29 points and 11 rebounds), but his teammates showed they know better. Just five minutes in on Sunday, Bosh was poked in the left eye. And after he had pulled himself out of the fetal position, he went on to miss 11 of 17 shots entering that final minute.
But then James was left open to receive a pass from Wade out of a double team. "We messed up on the pick-and-roll in the middle," Dirk Nowitzki said. When Tyson Chandler rotated out to James, Bosh (18 points overall) was freed by a screen from Udonis Haslem to catch James' pass and turn it into an assist as if he were playing against the Timberwolves in January.
"There is some improvement there," said Bosh, who was referring neither to his vision nor to the appearance of his left eye as he was scowled like a pirate. "If they kick it to me, I just have to be aggressive. I have confidence in my shot, and my teammates have confidence in me, too. I just have to let it go."
For three days (which to the Heat felt like three fortnights), the Mavs had earned the portrayal as a thief of last-minute games. Don't let Nowitzki near the ball in the final seconds -- it was like pitching to Barry Bonds in the ninth inning with first base open. You simply weren't supposed to provide Nowitzki with these chances. Except in this game he had two of them.
The first, less than 10 seconds after Bosh's cold-bloodedness, resulted in a turnover. Nowitzki went up for a turnaround jumper, felt Wade preparing to block his shot from the side, knew Shawn Marion was open in the corner (imagine the speed with which he glances down this checklist) and threw the ball into the stands just as Marion was breaking away from the corner and toward the basket.
"I wanted to shoot it," Nowitzki said, but Wade wasn't going to let him. "I tried to swing it, and Shawn was cutting. So I guess it was a miscommunication."
But then Miami ran down so much clock that James was left with a three-pointer that rattled out, leaving the Mavs with 4.4 seconds to set up Nowitzki to dash behind a screen out beyond the three-point line to receive the inbounds pass, where he was faced by Haslem. It was Haslem who wished he had been assigned to cover Nowitzki at the end of the previous game, when instead it had been Bosh who neglected to give forth an allotted foul before he was beaten off the dribble in the Mavs' comeback victory.
Coming out of the huddle this time, Haslem could be seen discussing the team's defense with Bosh, who would attach himself to Chandler while Haslem bodied up against Nowitzki. He drove into the key top and up-faked slightly, but Haslem was having none of it. Then Nowitzki fell away backward as the shot was launched over Haslem's outstretched fingers. It hovered over the paint like an infield pop-up, and when it bounced clear off the rim Haslem celebrated his vindication. He'd insisted he was the right man for the job, and so he was.
Neither team can feel secure, and yet both have reason for optimism after Game 3. The Mavs have two remaining home games that may yet send them back to Miami needing just one win to celebrate their first championship. James has shot a scant 10 free throws in three games, and yet he was increasingly aggressive while dunking off the dribble either in transition or the half court. Nowitzki had a splendid 34 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, and if he could just realize more production from his teammates -- who went 17-for-49 and for a second straight game watched him score all their points down the stretch (the last 12 this time) -- a tight loss like this could turn into a steadying Dallas victory Tuesday in Game 4.
The Mavs' focus now will be on snuffing out Wade, who was the most aggressive player on the floor as well as the loudest leader. He challenged James, Bosh and others to follow him.
"For me, it started in practice [Saturday]," Wade said. "I was very aggressive going to the hole practicing. My teammates seen it. They can tell that I wanted this game, and I came in with the same mentality today. I've been here before, so just trying to lead. My guys did a great job of following that lead."
The beauty of this oil-and-water matchup -- one athletic team attacking defensively, the other with scoring and skill -- is that each side is frantically struggling to match up with the other. Who knows whose star will shine brighter next time?