He made his first three shots. He was locked in.
Health-wise, though, he was far from it. It was a well-kept secret for about a quarter and a half. Then, coming out of a media timeout, Doris Burke said these frightening words.
"Dirk Nowitzki is playing tonight's basketball game with a fever perhaps as high as 102 degrees."
Oh, no. Not now. Not this game. Not this moment. It was the biggest game in the history of the franchise, and Dirk Nowitzki is on his death bed. Little would anyone think this game, this moment and this pale German's play on this June 7, 2011 night would be the turning point in the Dallas Mavericks winning the NBA title.
The narrative for the Mavericks in Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals was simple. One more loss meant a surefire elimination. Going down 3-1 after losing two on their home court would've been disastrous. Dropping two straight games at home after pulling off the most miraculous comeback in NBA Finals history would've been demoralizing.
That was Dallas' mission. That was Dirk's mission. After Dirk posted a 34-point, 11-rebound effort in Game 3 (coupled with missing the game-tying basket at the buzzer), it was literally do-or-die for the Mavericks. There was no in between. The Miami Heat were out for blood, knowing it stole all momentum it lost in Game 2.
Dirk did his part for the first one minute and 25 seconds in the game. Three field goal attempts, three makes. The soft shooting touch he displayed in Game 3 appeared to carry over. Dallas jumped out to a 6-0 lead and went into the first quarter tied 21-21.
That would be the last stretch of good basketball Dirk played for the next 34-plus minutes of game action.
Dirk went cold. He was well off on shots he normally would make. Some shots would hit the far rim, not even coming close to the basket. After that sizzling start, Dirk missed six of his next seven shots. His lone make in the second quarter was a 14-foot jumper with 5:25 remaining in the half.
"I remember giving [the ball] to him," said guard J.J. Barea, "and I remember him missing open shots that he would never miss."
Dirk was playing this much-needed game looking as pale as Casper. It made sense why he was missing these shots, but the timing was bad. If Dallas didn't get the very best out of Dirk in this game, the Mavericks would not have survived a four-quarter game against this Miami team. Maybe two and a half, possibly three. But not all 48 minutes.
The Mavericks knew that, too. If their superstar wasn't at 100 percent, it would have to take a Herculean effort from everyone around to tie this series at two games apiece.
"We knew what we had to do," said veteran forward Shawn Marion. "We had to all just believe in each other and come together."
Despite Dirk's shooting struggles, Miami only led by two after 24 minutes.
That first half gap would not have been so close had it been for Rick Carlisle's lineup changes. While he had a minute impact as a starter in Game 4, Barea was a pest for Miami to guard. DeShawn Stevenson came off the bench to score 11 points in the second quarter and made three 3-pointers.
Dallas was within striking distance. It just needed Dirk to be Dirk. Even coming out of halftime, that wasn't happening. Dirk missed all three of his attempts in the third quarter and missed nine of his last 10 after 36 minutes. But, yet again, the Mavericks still had a chance trailing 69-65.
"I know how much this guy's been through," said big man Tyson Chandler about Dirk. "We can't allow Dirk being sick to cost him his ring."
Each time the ABC cameras panned to Dirk on the bench, he looked like he was going to collapse. Sipping Gatorade with a towel draped over his head, Dirk looked defeated. If there was nothing left to give, it'd be understandable. This wasn't Michael Jordan with the flu. Dirk carried the Mavericks all postseason long. Thrilling comebacks and big-time plays alike, he wasn't doing that through three quarters.
To this day, it doesn't make sense how Dirk finally got going in the fourth quarter. But Dirk found the wherewithal, despite shooting 2-of-6 in the final frame, scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Both of his makes came at the rim, including that layup with 14.9 seconds left to give Dallas a three-point lead. Jeff Van Gundy had the classic call, too: "He's going too early." That, followed with a thunderous roar inside the American Airlines Center.
After Mike Miller's game-tying 3 went off line, the Mavericks found new life and became a complete team this night. Hunched over and looking dead at the podium, Dirk answered his questions and completed one of the most memorable games of his legendary career. It also caused LeBron James and Dwyane Wade decided to poke fun at Dirk's illness, which prompted Dirk to score 29 points in Game 5 and lead Dallas to a 3-2 lead.
"This is the Finals," Dirk said that night. "You're going to leave it out there."
"He's one of the greatest ever," Carlisle said after the game. "He wants the ball and he wants the responsibility of winning and losing the game. He did everything that he could possibly do."
Looking back on Game 4, that was the perfect springboard heading into Game 6. Dirk wasn't sick the night he hoisted the trophy in Miami, but his shot was off. Thanks to the play of his teammates, he and the Mavericks were able to close the series.
There were a lot of eventful moments during this Finals run, but the Fever Game can be overlooked in terms of importance. If Dirk hadn't gotten sick, the Mavericks might not be champions.
Quotes provided from the Mavericks' championship DVD.