MIAMI (AP) – The hammer Dirk Nowitzki is so close to escaping is pounding away harder than ever at LeBron James.
The Dallas Mavericks are a victory from claiming the title that James came to Miami to win. It would forever alter Nowitzki’s reputation, which has already been elevated enormously during this series as he’s ignored injury and illness.
And James is now the target of all the criticism Nowitzki long endured, the one shouldering most of the blame as things go wrong.
“That’s just a part of the game if you’re the star or the face of the franchise,” Nowitzki said Saturday. “If you win, it’s great for you, and everybody looks at you. And if you lose, you’re going to get hammered. It’s just part of the business. I think we understand that, we’ve been around long enough. I got the hammered the last 13 years, basically. So hopefully this year I can make the hammering go away for a year.”
He has two shots at it. The Mavs can win their first title Sunday night, or Tuesday if the Heat force a seventh game.
That would require a stronger effort from James, who this time a year ago was coming off his second straight MVP award and was three weeks from becoming among the most sought-after free agents in sports history.
Now he’s the guy who can’t produce in the fourth quarters, with 11 total points in five games, the one with the big name but the puny stats who had to spend part of his off day answer all sorts of questions about what’s happened to him.
-Are those 44 minutes per game you’re playing too much?
“I wouldn’t say it’s too much. I don’t think so,” James said. “I don’t feel like I’m hurting my team for the time I’m out there. I don’t feel like it’s too much.”
-Is something wrong with your shot technique?
“At this point, I don’t think technique has anything to do with it,” James said. “Shots go in, shots don’t go in. I don’t stop to think about my technique or anything like that.”
-Are you simply feeling the pressure of the finals stage?
“I think the game of basketball can be pressure,” James said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the finals or the conference finals or first round. Playoff basketball is all about pressure, how you can handle it.”
James did allow that perhaps he hasn’t been as aggressive in the fourth quarter because Dwyane Wade has been playing so well. Wade is averaging 28.4 points – 11 more than James, who also trails Chris Bosh.
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Wade said. “So we’re not necessarily concerned about him to that extent. I want him to play and feel confident.”
James noted that he did have a triple-double last game, but even with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, he said, “I had a bad game in a lot of people’s eyes. I understand that.”
Nowitzki knows the feeling. He has been the lone big star on a Dallas team that’s won 50 games for 11 straight seasons, yet he’s known best for his failures: the collapse after a 2-0 lead over Miami in the 2006 finals, the first-round loss to eighth-seeded Golden State in the first round the next year after winning 67 games.
He was tagged as soft – a label many European players receive – and given derisive nicknames such as No-win-ski or No-ring-ski. But he showed plenty of toughness Saturday when he fired back at Wade and James after they appeared to be mocking his recent illness on a video that made the rounds Friday.
Nowitzki called it “a little childish, a little ignorant,” but denied that it would give him any added motivation to claim the ring he’s been chasing for 13 years.
“We’re one win away from my dream, what I’ve worked on for half my life,” Nowitzki said. “This is really all I’m worried about, this is all I’m focusing on, and not really the off-the-court stuff that happened.”
James and Wade downplayed the video, but even if their intentions weren’t malicious, it gave Heat haters yet another reason to dislike the team that already provided so many from the moment they came together last summer.
Though they took less money than allowable, the James-Wade-Bosh union left little room to fill out the lower half of the roster. That didn’t matter earlier in the playoffs, when the trio played well enough to win with whatever support it got. Now James is well below his usual, Bosh is shooting just 37 percent, and the Mavericks’ superior depth is helping them pull out close games at the end.
The Mavericks’ nine-point victory in Game 5 was the biggest by either team in the series, in which Dallas has outscored Miami 463-459. The previous three had been decided by three points or fewer, and the Heat know they’ve been good enough to realize they can easily win the next two.
“This is about as close as you can possibly have a series, and you have to stay the course,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re doing a lot of things well. It’s a possession game, possession series, it goes down to the end. We’re a very good closing team on both ends of the court.
“They’ve been able to do it better than us in three of the games, but we feel very confident coming home and being able to do the things we’ve been successful at, particularly closing.”
The Mavs are comfortable on the road, where they won Game 2 of this series after a pair of victories at both Los Angeles and Oklahoma City in the previous two rounds. Nowitzki and Jason Terry still remember the pain of watching the Heat celebrate on their floor five years ago, and now they’ve got the chance for the ultimate payback.
“We feel that we can execute on the road as well,” Nowitzki said. “We have a bunch of veterans that are road-tested and hopefully we can get a big game tomorrow.”
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