I've mentioned this before, which is OK because Riley has been here before. In 1984, his Los Angeles Lakers gave Games 2 and 4 to the Boston Celtics before losing a championship they believe to this day they should have won. Now it's 2011 and Riley, as Miami president, watched from the stands as his Heat gave away Games 2 and 4 in a series they should be dominating, if not celebrating already.
They yielded a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2, but the Heat's surrender of a nine-point lead (74-65) in this final period Tuesday was more ominous. Dwyane Wade, who had been sensational all night and has been carrying Miami throughout these Finals, missed a tying free throw with 30.1 seconds remaining, and then with 6.7 seconds left bobbled an inbounds pass that ruined hope for an overtime-forcing three-pointer.
"It was a great pass," Wade said. "I just fumbled it. I was kind of anxious because I saw an opening really fast, trying to get there before I caught the ball."
When Jason Terry finished a couple of drives to force a quick Miami timeout at 74-69, the Heat realized the next 9:22 was every bit as important for them as it was for Dallas. Of course the Mavs had to win this game, knowing they couldn't expect to recover from a 3-1 deficit against a Finals favorite that had controlled the run of play for most of the series. But the Heat couldn't afford to yield this game either, and now that they've done exactly that, the potential consequences couldn't be more obvious.
The Mavericks now have an opportunity to grab a 3-2 lead by winning Game 5 on their home court Thursday. They haven't played close to their capability and yet they've stolen two victories. Isn't it likely they'll begin to make the open jumpers and layups that up to now have exposed their absence of confidence against this overwhelming Miami defense?
But the Mavs have every reason to be confident now. They're playing with house money. They've been awful and ugly and yet they've given themselves real hope of returning to Miami in need of just one victory in Games 6 or 7. All of a sudden their position of weakness has turned into a strength, and they couldn't have done it without Miami's help.
How did the Heat lose on a night when Dirk Nowitzki went 6-of-19 -- he missed 13 of his final 16 attempts from the field -- while dealing with a sinus infection and 101-degree fever? "I'll be all right Thursday," he promised. He was already showing improvement inside the final minute when he posted up Udonis Haslem near the top of the key in protection of a one-point lead. Instead of letting the clock run down, Nowitzki burst past Haslem and squeezed in a lunging layup off the glass just before Wade could arrive to challenge the shot.
"I was going to play the clock down, but I saw I had a little opening there so I just went for it," Nowitzki said. "They really played my left, which obviously the whole league does. So I was able to rip through and get to my right and finally finish a layup."
Nowitzki has produced both of Dallas' wins with last-minute drives -- beating Chris Bosh in Game 2 when the Heat failed to deploy an extra foul, and now against Haslem (who had successfully defended a Nowitzki turnaround jumper that would have forced OT in Game 3). Will LeBron James be the next defender assigned to stop him? Because everyone knows there will be at least one more of these showdowns to come.
One of these nights the Mavs are going to run off a string of jumpers, which in turn will liberate them to finish around the basket. They've worked too hard all season and shown too much improvement over this series to not realize some satisfaction. The Mavs are on the verge of an offensive breakthrough because the Heat have provided them with newfound hope. In this game they adapted to the close-outs of Miami by shot-faking and stepping inside the three-point line as the defender ran briefly out of the picture. Now it was suddenly a five-on-four play, and the Mavs attacked aggressively either by rotating the ball, driving it inside or shooting the mid-range jumper. They shot a frustrated 39.7 percent in this game, but for the first time they have reason to blame themselves more than give credit to the Heat defense. Next time those shots may begin to fall.
Dallas feels like it has made the most of its two wins, and Miami is furious over its two losses. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle started J.J. Barea to provide penetration to the offense, brought DeShawn Stevenson off the bench for a trio of threes in the first half to keep the Mavs from falling too far behind, and gave seven helpful minutes to Brian Cardinal. Then Shawn Marion (7-of-12) outscored James (3-of-11) by 16 to eight, which will make the national anti-Miami faction exquisitely happy.
"I got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively, not staying out of rhythm offensively the whole game," James said. "If I had had eight points and we won the game, I could be satisfied. The fact I could have did more offensively to help our team, that's the anger part about it. I'll come back in Game 5 and do things that need to be done to help our team win."
Wade (13-of-20) had his typical 32 points and Bosh (9-of-19) added 24, but no one else for Miami scored in double figures. The Heat lost even though Jason Kidd was scoreless with only three assists against four turnovers, even though Terry was an inefficient 6-of-15, even though the Mavs shot 4-of-19 from three-point range.
"I think we're back in our comfort zone," Bosh said optimistically. "We're desperate again, and the pressure is on us again. This is when we're at our best."
It's true that they've turned negatives into positives all season. But they're suddenly running out of time. In this series they're like a football team that turns scoring drives into turnovers, or a golfer who keeps bogeying the par-5s. Has Miami committed more errors than can be survived? If this really is like 1984, then the answer is a gloomy one for Riley's Heat: Once his Lakers lost Game 4, they never recovered. We're about to find out if Nowitzki really is the second coming of Larry Bird.