MIAMI — The Heat figured this one might be different. After all, suiting up again for the Dallas Mavericks was none other than longtime Miami nemesis Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki, recovering from knee surgery, was out two weeks ago when the Heat won easily 110-95 at Dallas. But he was on hand Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, coming off the bench and playing in his sixth game of the season.
Despite the Mavericks coming in six games under .500, Nowitzki’s presence alone conjured up some memories of the epic 2006 and 2011 Finals between Dallas and Miami. And even more thoughts came back as the teams played a back-and-forth game that the Heat won 119-109 in overtime.
“It’s a completely different team even if he’s playing limited minutes,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Nowitzki being brought along slowly while not starting.
Nowitzki scored 19 points in 29 minutes in easily his best game since returning. He had come in averaging a meager 8.2 points, barely a third of his career average, over 20.8 minutes.
Miami stars LeBron James (32 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) and Dwyane Wade (27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) had better games. But Nowitzki, 34, did enough to show he’s still got it.
“I felt like I had some more pep in my step again,” he said.
It was enough to bring back some memories of when the Heat beat Nowitzki’s Mavericks 4-2 in the 2006 Finals and Dallas returned the favor 4-2 in 2011.
Those were a pair of fiercely contested series. But Wade let it be known after Wednesday’s game how much he respects Nowitzki. He even admitted that losing to a future Hall of Famer such as Nowitzki took some of the sting away from Miami’s devastating 2011 Finals loss.
“From one standpoint, as a fan of the game, I’m sorry it had to come against us, but you look at it and say, ‘Dirk, he paid his dues and he deserved to be a champion,”‘ Wade said of Nowitzki finally getting a ring in 2011, his 13th season. “That was just the final thing that he needed to complete his legacy. Unfortunately, it came again us. For a player like that, as a fan of the game, you look and say, ‘Congratulations.’ Sorry, it had to come against us.”
Of course, it must be said Wade already had a ring when the Heat lost in 2011. James didn’t, so he wasn’t after Wednesday’s game offering any congratulations to Nowitzki for having won a title.
Still, James is a competitor. He was glad to see Nowitzki back in form.
“We respect Dirk,” James said. “We love Dirk’s game . . . He is an unbelievable talent. He’s a great player.”
Nowitzki was good enough Wednesday that the Mavericks (13-20) almost pulled an upset over the Heat (22-8), who raised their home record to 15-2. He had six points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer that put Dallas up 100-94 with 3:37 left in regulation.
Everybody remembers the Heat, while trailing the Finals 2-0, coming back from 13 points down midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 in 2006. Wade played a decisive role that night, totaling 42 points and 13 rebounds. So it would figure Wade was at center stage in another comeback win over the Mavericks.
Wade made a driving layup to cut the deficit to 100-96 with 3:02 left. Then, with 47 seconds left and Dallas holding a 101-98 lead, Wade slapped the ball out of the hands of Nowitzki in a play featuring the 2006 and 2011 Finals MVPs.
James picked up the loose ball and threw it to Wade. Wade drove down the court and passed behind him to Ray Allen for a layup that slashed the deficit to 101-100.
After Heat forward Shane Battier drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner to give the Heat the lead at 103-101 with 14.5 seconds to play, it again was Nowitzki’s turn. His 14-foot fadeaway jumper with 3.9 seconds left tied the score 103-103 and forced overtime.
Nowitzki, still rounding into form, didn’t have a lot left in the extra period. But Wade did, scoring three points and making two key steals during a 16-6 overtime romp.
Nevertheless, it was still fun to see Nowitzki, whose time is running out as a pro, have another intriguing outing against the Heat. Nowitzki is Dallas’ only remaining player from the 2006 team and one of just two left who saw action in the 2011 Finals (forward Shawn Marion is the other).
Wade and forward Udonis Haslem are the only players remaining for the Heat from 2006. There are plenty left from 2011, a series that featured Nowitzki averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Nowitzki got old in a hurry after that. He had a health-hampered 2011-12, when his 21.6 scoring average was his lowest in 12 years. And this season didn’t start out well for the 15-year man.
But at least now there’s hope.
“I’m going to keep on working and I’m going to try to help this team some more,” Nowitzki said. “We’ll get my minutes back up and go from there. My legs feel a lot better.”
There won’t be any more meetings between Nowitzki and Miami this season since the Mavericks obviously aren’t going to make the Finals. But maybe Nowitzki will have something more to show the Heat next season, when he’s in the final year of his Dallas contract and possibly also in his final one as a pro.
“There’s always going to be something between Dallas and Miami,” Wade said of when Nowitzki is playing. “We enjoy it. He’s a great competitor.”