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Mavs will regret letting up on gas

WP: All of a sudden, Heat the team with the confidence

This is why you don't give away a championship game the way the Dallas Mavericks did on Tuesday night. This is why you don't let your concentration lapse because you think you're cruising, up 2-0 in the series and 13 points in Game 3. You can take things for granted in December or March but not in the NBA Finals, not when the opponent you let off the mat is led by a crafty old coach whose specialty is motivation, a behemoth with one eye on his legacy, and a young star who seems destined to join the all-time greats.

The Dallas Mavericks are in trouble, serious trouble after Thursday's 98-74 loss to the Miami Heat. They took for granted the Heat was going to roll over like a dog because they were down and nearly out in Game 3. But two great — excuse me — Jordanesque performances from Dwyane Wade and a flagrant foul that fired up Shaquille O' Neal now equal an enormous shift in this series.

"I've been telling you guys all along, this is a seven-game series," Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson said. After Miami's victory in Game 4, it would be stupid to dispute Johnson.

The Mavericks promised to come out in Game 4 playing pedal-to-the-medal basketball. They promised to use their superior team athleticism and deeper bench to run Miami back and forth until the Heat's collective tongue hit the floor. They promised to go warp-speed on the old blue hairs; Johnson even changed his lineup and put his turbo rabbit, Devin Harris, in the starting lineup, which was like a signal to Miami: Gentlemen, crank up your '67 Oldsmobile . . . if you can.

But the Mavericks' sports car seems to have suddenly turned into a jalopy. Dallas shot a measly 32 percent. The Miami Heat may be old and slow but they're full of pride and gamesmanship. And even though they didn't wake up until the fourth quarter of Game 3, they nonetheless appear wide-eyed, interested and capable of winning a dogfight four games into the series.

Speaking of old dogs, Pat Riley came up with a new trick in Game 4: He went to his bench. He stopped looking over the head of Shandon Anderson, a 32-year-old veteran with experience in two NBA Finals with Utah, and put him in the game. Lo and behold, Anderson scored a little bit, rebounded, hustled a lot, and put all the smarts he learned playing defense over the years into annoying the hell out of Dirk Nowitzki. Speaking of Dirk, that's two straight stinkers and counting. He's shooting 36 percent for the series.

Great players don't turn into pumpkins in the Finals, which is what Dirk is turning into. There's this notion hanging around the series like a promise that Nowitzki is ready to break out and have a great game. We're still waiting. In Game 4, he couldn't have been worse. At halftime, the Mavericks' best player had two baskets (in eight attempts) and four turnovers.

Dirk is in a funk. He led the Mavericks in hesitancy and reluctance in Game 4. He got his shot smacked away routinely, missed gimmes in the lane, tossed up a couple of air balls. Dirk has some making up to do in Game 5. And if he doesn't get himself together by Sunday, Dallas might be shown the door, tossed right out of here, become just the third team in basketball 's modern era to win the first two games of the Finals series and lose the series.

Yes, it's that dire for Dallas, even with two games to be played in Dallas, if necessary, and Miami down to its final home game on Sunday. It 's that serious because Wade has discovered, as have the Mavericks, that he simply cannot be stopped. That's 42 and 36 in the last two games. And if the Mavericks have to pay that much attention to Wade -- and they do -- then there is suddenly enough operating room for Shaq, and the likes of Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, Udonis Haslem and James Posey. If Johnson doesn't figure out how to force the ball out of Wade's hands, Miami wins, period.

The Heat delivered a beat down Thursday night even though Shaq picked up two fouls in the first quarter; the Heat had been 1-4 in the playoffs when Shaq was plagued with such a condition.

But Miami actually played better with Shaq on the bench and Alonzo Mourning in the game. Miami went from down one to up eight, 30-22. All Mourning did was play with his traditional menacing, scowling and flexing while blocking two shots in the first quarter. Riley was so giddy going to the bullpen he played 11 of his 12 eligible players. Anderson, who was inexplicably affixed to the bench for all by 60 minutes in the playoffs, stayed on the floor for 19 minutes in Game 4.

The Mavericks ought to be embarrassed to allow Miami to shoot 52 percent and score 30 points in a quarter? Of course, Wade warmed up and once he did the Mavericks seemed downright afraid of him. Before the third quarter was done, Wade had hit 12 of 18 shots and scored 32 points -- nearly half of the Mavericks' total of 67. Dallas was getting decent enough performances from Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry. But with Dirk mired in 2 for14 Dallas looked like just another team.

Stackhouse may have contributed, albeit unwillingly, to really firing up the Miami players and coaches to a level that could last, oh, two or three more games by committing a flagrant foul on Shaq. The blow Stack administered looked like a doozy, but Shaq said afterward his daughters hit him harder roughing around at home.

"Now," Dirk said afterward, "Miami is playing with a lot of confidence."

It's the Mavericks' fault entirely, for blowing that 13-point lead in the final 6 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter Tuesday night.

Avery Johnson could see this coming, possibly, though perhaps not his players. Now Johnson, who had been hailed as a superior coach, has some real work in front of him between now and Sunday. "I think I said it [after Game 2] when we were being built up as this flawless team that was supposed to run away in this series," he said. "Like we were playing against ourselves. . . . We are not a flawless team. We've been getting off to some miserable starts, and we 're still fortunate enough to have won two games."

But if the Mavericks don't get back to playing respectable defense, and if Nowitzki doesn't come out of his funk, and if Dallas can't wrestle control of the action away from Wade, the Mavericks may not be fortunate enough to win another one.