The Mavericks are calling themselves streak busters after ending the Heat's 12-game winning streak in Miami, but they should be calling themselves the best team in the NBA at this point in the season. After all, it was Mark Cuban who dubbed the Heat as the league's best team a few days ago.
Dallas has won 15 of its last 16 games, including two victories against the Heat and one in San Antonio (24-3) that stopped the Spurs' 12-game winning streak. The Mavs (22-5) also took care of the Celtics in Boston (22-2) last month to end its five-game winning streak, so they've beaten the only two teams with a better record. Last night's big victory made it clear that Dallas is the club to beat.
Miami's three-headed monster of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh each scored at least 19 points, but James didn't make his first shot until there was less than eight minutes left in the third quarter, and both Bosh and Wade missed key three pointers at the end of the game. (Wade's desperation three as time expired was meaningless at that point.) Dirk Nowitzki scored a game-high 26 points, but it was a spectacular fourth-quarter outburst of 19 points from Jason Terry that led to the 98-96 victory.
The Mavericks played aggressive defense, but the Heat didn't hit their first free throw shot until 3:07 remaining in the first half. Meanwhile, James responded by committing three early fouls.
It was a game of double-digit runs. Dallas began the game with a 14-2 lead, but Miami closed the gap with a 17-0 run spanning the first and second quarters. The Mavs managed a 10-0 run late in the third quarter, but the Heat responded with a 13-0 run of their own. Throughout the back-and-forth, Dallas didn't panic, but there were a couple times when it appeared as though it was ready to fold.
Late in the first half with the score tied at 39-39, there was a 52-second period of madness that felt like a game-changing moment. From the time Mike Miller rebounded a missed three-pointer by Nowitzki with 2:45 left in the half to the 1:53 mark when Mario Chalmers nailed a three of his own, it felt like it wasn't going to be the Mavs day. After six, yes six, missed shots and, of course, six offensive rebounds, Chalmers hit his shot. Miller, who missed two three-pointers during the Heat's string of misfires, received a standing ovation in what was his first appearance of the year after recovering from surgery to his right thumb.
Mavs announcer Mark Followill summed up the frustrating sequence succinctly: "That's demoralizing."
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It certainly felt that way, but Nowitzki hit two jumpers, and Dallas went into halftime down just one point at 44-43.
Dallas also appeared to begin to lose momentum when Shawn Marion was called for traveling and an offensive foul on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter with the Mavs down 70-69, but Terry, who started the game 0-for-5 from the field, took control, scoring all of his 19 points in the final quarter while shooting 6-for-10 overall and 3-for-4 from three-point range.
Terry's rebound of his own miss and subsequent three-pointer to put the score at 86-81 with 2:27 left in the game turned out to be the actual game-changer, as the Mavs stretched their lead out to more than four points for the first time since they led 55-48 less than four minutes into the third quarter.
This was a litmus test for both clubs, and Dallas proved its place atop the NBA while earning a victory against a team vying for the same title. The Mavs face another test tonight against the Magic in Orlando and then again next Thursday against the Spurs at home, but until they stop beating the league's other top clubs, why can't we call them the best?