As the final minutes were furiously ticking away Saturday afternoon at American Airlines Center, once again it appeared as though the Dallas Mavericks were going to make this playoff push as difficult as possible.
With less than four minutes left, the visiting Chicago Bulls were up by 12 points and gaining confidence nearly every trip up the court. But as if they were pushed by a gust of wind, the Mavericks suddenly found a burst of energy and willed their way to a shocking 100-98 triumph over the Bulls in front of a sellout crowd of 20,502.
The stunning reversal enabled the Mavericks to push their record to 36-37 and remain within a game and a half of the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Dallas’ win also set the stage for a prime-time showdown in Los Angeles on Tuesday, when the Mavericks open a season-defining four-game road trip against the Lakers, who were tied with the Jazz with a 38-36 worksheet.
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Before matching wits with the Lakers, however, the Mavericks knew they had a physical challenge with the Bulls.
Neither was the game-winning 3-pointer Dirk Nowitzki rattled home with 2.9 seconds left.
It was the 12th time in Nowitzki’s career that he’s hit a game-winning shot with 10 seconds or less left to play.
Nowitzki’s game-changer helped the Mavericks end the game on an improbable 15-1 run. Nowitzki, who finished with a season-high 35 points, said the Mavs’ fortunes turned so much that even he didn’t think his game-winner was on target when it left his hands.
“It felt almost a little flat coming out of my hands,” said Nowitzki, who scored 20 points in the first half and added 15 more in the fourth quarter. “I don’t know if I didn’t have enough lift coming out of that. It kind of snuck in there. It kind of rattled, too. I was just hoping it was going to go in.”
Fresh off snapping Miami’s 27-game winning streak Wednesday, the Bulls used a terrific display of shooting by Nate Robinson and Luol Deng to take what seemed to be a commanding 97-85 lead with 4:08 remaining.
The game was tied 75-75 entering the fourth quarter, which opened with Robinson — he was a personal-best-tying 7-of-7 from 3-point range — scoring the Bulls’ first 11 points for an 86-77 lead.
After the Mavs battled back, Robinson chased down a loose ball and tossed in a wild 32-footer as the shot-clock expired, giving the Bulls a 91-83 cushion midway through the final quarter.
The Mavericks, however, who finished this homestand 4-2, didn’t flinch.
“We knew that they had hit their share of lucky shots during the game,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Robinson hit two or three shots that he’s capable of hitting. But if you give in at that point and say it’s just their night, you’re never going to win a big game. Our guys hung in and kept battling, and when you do that, you’ll get good fortune.”
After the Bulls built what they thought was an insurmountable 12-point lead, the Mavericks were 5 of 9 from the field and 3 of 5 from the free-throw line, while Chicago was 0 of 7 from the floor and 1 of 4 from the line.
Considering what happened when the Mavericks lost at home by 25 points to Indiana on Thursday, they were in no position to leave town on a two-game losing streak. Not with the stakes so high.
“We stepped up to the challenge,” said Brandan Wright, who collected 17 points and 13 rebounds in only 23 minutes. “They got a big lead on us, and we fought back and tied it up, and we kept chipping away.
“We don’t want to give up, we haven’t been giving up, and we’ve been down a lot. A lot of people have been writing us off, but we just keep playing hard, guys keep stepping up.”
And the player who stepped up the most Saturday was Nowitzki, who was 14 of 16 from the field, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range.
“Dirk’s an amazing player,” said guard Mike James, who had five points and seven assists. “When he was as hot as he was tonight, you just continue to just keep getting him the ball.
“It was like everything was just going in the hole for him.”
It was, especially Nowitzki’s final shot of the day.