Before the pandemonium, before Gary Payton gave purpose to prospective South Florida retirees everywhere Tuesday night — before a 37-year-old point guard hit the shot that brought the Heat back from Hades and Dirk Nowitzki missed the most important free throw of his career — about the only place they were delirious over these NBA Finals was north Texas and maybe — maybe — Wurzburg, Germany.
Everywhere else, apathy. Ambivalence. Depression for Hoophead America, followed by a long reach for the remote.
What began as the greatest postseason in the modern game's history was being ruined by a noncompetitive championship series. Dallas-Miami had no appeal, no rhythm, no drama, nothing that resembled the theater leading up to the league's alleged showcase.
The star power that was supposed to propel the Heat and the Mavericks to boffo ratings and popularity had wilted in the humidity of South Florida, next to Pat Riley's overmatched team.
I didn't expect a seven-game thriller or 40-point eruptions from Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Nowitzki. But with a few minutes left in Game 3, I expected more than a potential sweep, which the Mavericks were heading for while handling the Heat on its home court.
Somehow, Wade found his health, his rhythm and his shot. The Heat found its heart. Somehow, we've got a series — a compelling buildup for Game 4, culled from almost nothing in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals that was flat-out devoid of drama with less than seven minutes left.
After San Antonio-Dallas went seven riveting games in the second round — a series many felt was actually for the NBA title — and after Phoenix and the Mavericks traded bombs and dunks for two weeks in the Western Conference finals, after Miami outdueled its nemesis, Detroit, in the East, the NBA Finals were going to be as good as real basketball fans might imagine.
With 6 minutes 34 seconds left Tuesday night, Dallas holding a 13-point lead and maybe a few good stops from going up 3-0 — a deficit never overcome in a seven-game NBA playoff — the best June in NBA annals stunningly resumed.
A long, baseline jumper from Wade. All net. A three-pointer by James Posey. Money. O'Neal at the free throw line with 1:48 left. Good! Good! And that shot by Payton, taking a kick-out pass on the right wing, knocking it down seamlessly from about 20 feet as if he were still an MVP candidate in Seattle. Unreal.
"I am absolutely without a doubt a true believer," Riley said when asked whether he doubted his team could pull off this 98-96 pulsating finish. "I know players. I've been around players 40 years. I know when they look around and they look up and they say, 'This doesn't look very good.' But you've just got to keep trying to get them to dig, to dig, to dig, to dig."
I'm not saying Heat in six yet, but prior to Game 3, Jack Ramsay interviewed his one-time pupil, Bill Walton. Most fans today know Dr. Jack as the grandfatherly ESPN radio analyst and Walton as the hyperbolic announcer who once called Larry Johnson a "sad, pathetic human being" for having the gall to miss a three-pointer.
Yet in 1977, Ramsay was the last coach to guide a team out of an 0-2 hole to an NBA championship, and Walton was the incomparable center who led the Portland Trail Blazers to that title over Julius Erving's 76ers in six games.
"It was Dr. Jack's finest moment as a coach," Walton said. "We were completely devastated after two losses in Philadelphia. We came home out of sorts. He told us: 'Don't change. Play your game. Stop reading the papers and listening to the trash talk. And play your game.' " The Blazers won four straight, and Walton cemented his place in history as one of the game's finest big men.
"Jack Ramsay made the adjustments that [76ers coach] Gene Shue refused to," said Erving, who was at American Airlines Arena on Tuesday night. "And Bill was great, just the consummate player that season."
O'Neal's legacy is secure, no matter how much paint he chips off the rim from the foul line before he retires. He's taken three teams to the Finals and won three titles, one more than Wilt Chamberlain. He's been to the championship series almost every other year since he came into the league — six times in 13 seasons. He's inarguably one of the top five centers to ever play the game, and I would put him third behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.
I don't know if he and Wade can parlay a single victory at home against Dallas into anything more than respectability. But something about the way the Heat came back, something about the way the big man concentrated at the foul line when the series was in the balance, something about the way Wade just squared and fired and swished from the baseline when his team needed points most, something in the way Riley told his team they were playing for their season and his enigmatic team actually listened tells you this is not over. Miami is going to get at least two of three here and take this back to Dallas.
"I still like the Heat winning it," Walton said. "I believe Shaq and Dwyane Wade are the two best players on the floor and the best players on the floor win championships. No disrespect to Dallas or Dirk, but that's how I see it."
I told Antoine Walker what Walton said and how Dr. Jack was the last to lead a team back from 2-0 down. "It can be done here," he said. "I know it can. If we can get Thursday's game, anything can happen."
I don't know if they win it all. But something about the way Tuesday night ended made you believe in the magic of this postseason again. Yet another loud, crazed arena in June for the NBA, another playoff series worthy of the annals and not just Wurzburg.