MIAMI -- They showed up -- both of them -- independently, yet in concert.
Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade were restless at home, unhappy with their effort, both collectively and individually. They were reeling from a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals and knew whose responsibility it was to reverse their team's fortunes -- and quickly.
So they did what those gym rats in high school always do: They bummed a key and showed up for a little extra practice Monday night. The big guy was on one end, trying to rid himself of the jerky, clanging motion that had made his trips to the free-throw line fodder for Letterman and Leno. The younger one, who wants so badly to be invited into the inner circle of the game's elite, worked on his jumper, the part of his game that was suddenly and swiftly being diagnosed and dismissed after two games of subpar shooting.
They left sometime after 10:30 pm, with a new resolve for Game 3, a 48-minute exercise that both had privately conceded was the most critical game of their season.
Consider this series officially revived. Behind a magnificent performance by Wade, including a clutch corner jumper with 1:16 left that pulled his team within a point, Miami has risen from the dead -- not to mention from a 13-point deficit with 6:34 to play and a 7-point deficit with five minutes to play.
The Heat is back on after this pulsating 98-96 win, which seemed to have slipped from the home team's grasp after a horrendous third quarter in which Miami coughed up the ball repeatedly and Dallas converted behind the quick-strike transition baskets of Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard.
Wade, who poured in a game-high 42 points, pulled his team from the ashes with slashing penetrations and timely perimeter shooting. After his team fell behind by 13, he knocked in a 14-foot bank shot, coaxed in a driving layup in traffic (then hit the free throw on the foul), then rattled in another jump shot that closed his team within 5, 91-86.
``You saw a great effort by a great player down the stretch for us," said Heat forward Antoine Walker. ``Dwyane carried us home. He stayed aggressive. He kept attacking the basket. He gave us exactly what we needed."
``I kept looking up at the score thinking, `I ain't going out like this,' " Wade said. ``Not 3-0 [in games]. So you do what you can."
The biggest shot of the night was actually supplied by old friend Gary Payton, who stroked a 16-foot jumper -- his only field goal attempt of the night -- from the left side with nine seconds left to give Miami a 97-95 lead.
Nowitzki had a chance to tie the game with three seconds remaining, but he uncharacteristically missed his second free throw, and the monster rebound was hauled in by -- who else? -- Wade. He then went to the line in the final second with two free throws of his own, and his team hanging precariously onto a 97-96 edge.
He only hit one, but the home team hung on for the win.
Dallas is undoubtedly cursing itself this morning for letting this one get away. The Mavericks were pounded off the glass (49-34), with Wade hauling in a game-high 13 rebounds, but the game and the momentum of this series was in their normally reliable hands down the stretch before they were outwilled by Wade.
``We had it," said Howard, shaking his head. ``We were up 13, and then all of a sudden we were losing with a minute to go. We let down. That's all I can see. So turn the page and move on."
They move on knowing Miami's two top guns have regained some confidence with this invigorating come-from-behind win. By virtue of an anemic 5 points on five shots in Game 2, Shaq was absorbing the heat for his team's lackluster performance. He was double-teamed nearly every time he caught the ball, yet no two double teams were the same. Dallas mixed up its assault on Shaq by three-quarter fronting him, then totally fronting him, then denying him the ball. Sometimes the Mavericks doubled him with two big men; other times, they relied on a rotation of their wing players. As Mavericks guard Jerry Stackhouse observed, ``The key is variety. We don't want him to know where that double team is coming from. Truthfully, sometimes I don't think we even know where it's coming from."
Last night, O'Neal didn't particularly care who was coming at him -- or where. He was smarting from the criticism leveled at him, and, just as he did in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, when he quieted doubters with a 28-point, 16-rebound, 5-block effort, he was hell bent on proving his mettle. On the very first possession, he split the double and easily scored. By 5:42 of the first quarter, the big man had already rung up 6 points (all on the block) to surpass his Game 2 totals.
Shaq finished with 16 points and was 4 of 6 from the line. With 1:48 left on the clock, he hit two critical free throws to pull the Heat to within 3. O'Neal revealed he changed his technique at the line a little bit. ``I just went back to the way I used to shoot when I was a youngster, when I was a good player," he cracked.
Yet it's not O'Neal who needs to excel for the Heat to have a chance in this series. The player who needed to lift his game another notch was the legend-in-waiting, Wade, who had also accumulated his share of doubters through the first two games with his spotty shooting.
Many of those who dismissed this gem were the same people who were falling all over themselves comparing Wade with LeBron James just 10 short days ago.
Wade's contributions last night were nothing short of exhilarating for the anxious Heat fans, who were wondering where their slashing, penetrating backcourt star had gone. Wade returned to that aggressive form, even as he played much of the final frame with five personal fouls.
``It's just incredible, the heart he has," Heat coach Pat Riley said.
``But you know," mused Dallas coach Avery Johnson, ``even with Wade scoring like that, we still had a chance to win the game."
He is right. But that page has turned. Wade will dominate the headlines this morning, while the Mavericks are left to ponder how they can find a key to a nearby gym to straighten out their own new set of glitches.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.