Down by 14 and playing listlessly, the Dallas Mavericks sure looked ready to call it a season.
Then Carmelo Anthony threw a jab, and everything changed.
Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs awoke from their early-game slumber with rally after rally, getting close or even tied yet unable to get ahead until the former MVP made a tough, high-arching shot with 1:05 left. Having worked so hard for the lead, they weren’t about to give it back, pulling out a 119-117 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night to avoing being swept.
Anthony scored a career playoff-best 41 points and snagged five steals. He was the one turning away most Dallas rallies and made a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left that got Denver within a point. Yet when Mavericks guard Jason Terry intentionally missed a free throw with 1.1 ticks left, Anthony was out of answers. He got the rebound, but couldn’t stop the clock and didn’t even have time to try a 90-foot heave.
The buzzer sounded and confetti fell as the teams left the court knowing they will meet again Wednesday night in Denver.
“It was an unbelievable game,” said Nowitzki, who scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter. “We were down the whole game, but were able to come back and win and we’ve been doing that all season long. … We’ve got to go back to Denver and let it all hang out again.”
The Mavs lost all four regular-season games against the Nuggets and the first three of this series, but all along felt they were close. The scoreboard showed it, too, as Denver’s margin shrunk from 14 in the opener to 12 then to one in Game 3, which also needed a mistaken no-call and a 3-pointer by Anthony with a second left.
“We’ve been fighting and fighting this whole series,” said Mavs forward Josh Howard, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds on two bad ankles. “The end of Game 3 gave us a lot of willpower for this game.”
It sure didn’t look like it the first 13 minutes.
Anthony and the Nuggets were scoring at will and the Mavericks were doing little to stop them. On one possession, Anthony turned, saw no one between him and the basket and soared for a dunk so easy it could’ve been preseason.
But then Anthony and Dallas’ Antoine Wright—the combatants from the Game 3 finish—got their arms tangled. Once untangled, Anthony’s open hand smacked Wright in the shoulder. Officials called Wright for a loose-ball foul, hit Anthony with a technical and watched a video replay to make sure they were right.
Nothing was the same after that. The intensity ratcheted to Game 7 proportions, with a total of seven technical fouls and two flagrants. It spilled into the stands, too, with security guards removing Anthony’s girlfriend, LaLa Vazquez of MTV fame, for her safety and with extra protection around the mother of Kenyon Martin, who had a brief exchange with Mavs owner Mark Cuban after Game 3.
“They’re allowed to be fans, but when it gets personal, it goes over the top,” said Denver’s Chauncey Billups, who had 24 points and seven assists.
Added Nuggets coach George Karl: “I would probably use an uglier word than hostile, but I’m not going to do that right now. I don’t think it was very classy.”
The postgame scene was a little calmer than after Game 3, although it may also wind up getting reviewed by the league office because Martin and Cuban clearly exchanged words.
Alas, Denver fans won’t get their chance for revenge on Cuban. He’s skipping Game 5 to be at an awards ceremony in Las Vegas, keeping a promise he made to his wife six months ago.
Nuggets fans will have plenty to scream about anyway. Their club is 5-0 at home this postseason and can clinch their first trip to the conference finals since 1985.
“We’re still in control,” Anthony said. “We’ll be ready.”
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle wasn’t surprised his team played so well because that’s been their pattern this season—bouncing back strong after hitting rock bottom. He probably would’ve preferred they didn’t get so far behind so quickly at the start, but Nowitzki refused to let them stay down for long.
“There are very few guys I have been around in this league that are as strong-willed as him,” Carlisle said.
Nowitzki, who also is dealing with off-court troubles involving a girlfriend, was 14-of-25. He made 16 of 17 free throws and grabbed 13 rebounds.
“We showed character and fought,” said Dallas’ Jason Kidd, who had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “The pressure is on them to win the series. We don’t have any pressure.”