American Airlines Center was a weird place to be June 7, 2011.
Dirk Nowitzki was struggling -- not just having a bad game, but having one of his worst games ever. It wasn't that he was missing shots. They weren't coming close. He was slow. He looked visibly tired.
The Mavericks were down 2-1 to Miami in The Finals, and all signs pointed to a Heat parade if Dwyane Wade and Co. could walk away up 3-1 heading into Game 5. Wade could certainly smell blood. He was one of only three players that night to hit more than half his shots. His 32 points led all scorers. He was outstanding, as we'd come to expect.
But Dirk, our hero, was nowhere to be found that night, and no one in the crowd, save for the entire Mavericks team, knew why. You have to remember this was just before Twitter became as ubiquitous as it is today. Internet access was hard to come by in the building that night anyway, as no less than 21,000 people were inside a building meant for 20,000.
And besides, the Mavericks kept it pretty quiet that Nowitzki was struggling from a triple-digit fever, although it became fairly clear just by glancing at him draped in towels during every TV break, of which there were many. This was The Freaking Finals, after all, home of the world's longest commercial breaks. But those five-minute breaks only gave me enough time to maybe snag a hint of Internet -- not long enough to find out what the heck was going on with Dirk.
It wasn't until halftime that I finally caught wind of his illness. Heck, those watching at home almost surely knew about it before those of us in the building. And on that night, ill news was certainly an ill guest. This wasn't the time for Dirk to get sick. Why him? Why now? He'd waited his entire career for this chance. Didn't the basketball gods know what was at stake? That Finals was the single-most narrative-heavy championship I think I've lived through. Good had to conquer, but it could only if Nowitzki somehow found it within him to play through whatever virus was attempting to thwart his best -- and, maybe, his last -- shot at winning a championship he so deserved.
That, as well, deserves a thought: Despite what the narrative might have suggested at the time and, still, to this day, Nowitzki was never alone. Jason Terry was magnificent against Miami, as was Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, and so on. So was Rick Carlisle. Chandler's 13 points and 16 boards and Marion's 16 points and defense on the underperforming James were all indispensable contributions to a win Dallas arguably should not have earned.
But, as is rightfully the case, Nowitzki's second-half triumph conquered any other storyline that night, including James's career-worst performance. Dirk did what he's always done when his shot won't fall, health be damned. He got to the free throw line, where he hit 9-of-10 attempts. He grabbed 11 defensive rebounds. He kept Dallas in it, finishing +7 in a game decided by three points.
And, despite the best efforts of a pesky virus determined to reduce the demigod Playoff Nowitzki to a mere mortal, Dirk found himself with a chance to put the game away...sort of. After a Wade free throw rimmed out with 29 seconds left and Dallas ahead 82-81, Carlisle's call was an easy one to make. No matter what Nowitzki was shooting, he's the guy who would get the ball. Everyone in the world knew it.
So, there he stood at the right elbow, ball in hand, Udonis Haslem on his hip, waiting. Waiting as he'd waited for more than a decade to be in this position; waiting for the opportunity to hand-craft his career's everlasting narrative.
As it turned out, he wouldn't wait as long as we might have thought he would. With 12 seconds still on the shot clock, Nowitzki turned to his right, faced up against Haslem, ripped the ball through, stepped left, bounced, stepped right, gathered, stepped left, and banked in a running layup.
The entire move took less than three seconds, but anyone who'd watched Dirk for more than a decade knows the German has always done things just a bit slower than everyone else. But not even the opposing players thought Nowitzki would go as soon as he did, making even a debilitated Dirk still quick enough to beat the Heat's collective brain. Haslem, though he defended valiantly, even seemed surprised. A soaring Wade, chasing a block, arrived one beat too late. Had Dirk waited an extra tick, that might not have been the case. He saw his alley, he made his move, and he scored. And Dallas would win, and Nowitzki's fever would subside a day later.
And then Dallas would win again, and Dallas would win again. That 24-hour pest paid him an unwelcome visit, and he paid it a giant middle finger -- or perhaps he paid it a torn digit on his left hand.
Nowitzki was not healthy during that Finals, and some of his numbers in retrospect don't look it, either. But if you were there, if you were watching, you appreciated him. Dirk played Game 4 with one-and-a-half hands and a barely-functioning body; he played it with a frail frame and an exhausted demeanor.
But he wasn't carried off the court as Michael Jordan had been more than a decade prior. He didn't need to be. Just a towel would do for him, thank you. That's the story of his unbelievable 2011 playoffs run, and that's the story of his entire career. Just give him what he needs, and he'll do the rest. Finger's torn? Give him a splint. Body's warm? Give him a towel and some water. Need to win a title? Give him the ball and get the hell out of his way.
The second last minute Dirk layup of the 2011 Finals did not seal a championship for Dallas. Far from it, actually. At that point we were still one Kidd back-breaker, an unconscious JET performance, and a whole lot of Nowitzki away from Dirk hoisting the Larry O. But that running layup that came just a bit early gave Dallas just a bit of confidence it needed to win the trophy that not many people thought the Mavericks could or would ever win.
That title team was terrific all-around. But Nowitzki transcended everything and everybody else for that run in June. That's the way we'll always remember it, because Dirk himself made sure it would be so.
A special thanks to our friend Bobby Karalla for contributing to Championship Week. You can follow him on Twitter at @bobbykaralla and find more of his work on Mavs.com and MavsOutsider.com.