DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks needed Dirk Nowitzki to keep shooting.
Instead, he threw a pass. And with that, the Mavericks threw away their chance at the lead in the NBA finals.
Nowitzki's turnover with 30 seconds left was the last and most costly of the Mavericks' 14 on Sunday night, and they lost 88-86 to the Miami Heat in Game 3 to fall into a 2-1 deficit.
"We have to take care of the ball against this team," Dallas point guard Jason Kidd said. "Make or miss shots, you can't just give these guys easy layups on the other end. That's what they're doing to us right now."
Nowitzki, perhaps the dominant offensive player this postseason, had carried the Mavs again over the final 6 minutes, scoring their last 12 points to tie it at 86 with 1:40 remaining.
But after Chris Bosh's jumper with 39 seconds left, Nowitzki got the ball near the top of the key but saw his lane close down, so he tried to pass to Shawn Marion along the sideline. He was off balance and the ball soared into the seats with 30 seconds to go.
Nowitzki said he wanted to shoot it, but saw Dwyane Wade coming over and didn't think he'd be able to get a good attempt off. Nowitzki said he saw Marion but his teammate left the corner, calling the play a "miscommunication."
Given a last attempt after LeBron James' missed 3-pointer, Nowitzki did shoot it on the final possession of the game, but he was well defended by Udonis Haslem and the shot bounced off the rim just before the buzzer.
The Mavs know they are at a disadvantage physically against the Heat's athletes, which makes their execution even more important. When the game gets into the full court, the Heat can beat the older Mavs players down the floor.
"We've got to eliminate a couple of the turnovers that lead to quick points," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Miami frequently capitalized when Dallas did mess up, turning those 14 turnovers into 19 points. The Mavericks should have had the last shot of the first quarter and would have at most been down four points. Instead, J.J. Barea's pass went out of bounds with 3.5 seconds and the Heat hurried up the floor to get Mario Chalmers' 36-foot heave for a 29-22 lead.
Carlisle said the Heat were the best team in the league during the regular season in converting steals into points. Dallas had six turnovers at halftime, but Miami scored 14 points off them, which Carlisle called "an inordinate number."
"So it's a good example of the importance of taking care of the ball," Carlisle said.
Carlisle talked about the difficulty of playing from behind, and the way watching James soar for dunks his players created can become demoralizing. He said the Mavs had "one or two untimely turnovers" — but that's all it takes to swing a game that was decided by two points.
Problem is, Miami's defense is so good that Nowitzki admitted the Mavs have no choice but to turn it over sometimes.
"It's just going to happen. They're so fast, long, athletic," Nowitzki said. "They do a good job swarming the ball once we put it down. We're going to turn it over some. I already thought we cut it down from Game 2 to this one, so hopefully in Game 4 we can cut down a couple more and we'll be OK."
Miami got 31 points off turnovers in Game 2, and Dallas was only able to rally in that game because it protected the ball down the stretch and turned it into a half-court contest, and the Heat kept missing jumpers.
But the Mavs would make things much easier on themselves if they didn't spot the Heat so many free points, and force themselves to rely on comebacks.
"The big thing is we have had spots of turning the ball over and giving them opportunities," Kidd said. "So we have to take care of the ball."
Barea turned it over four times in 19 minutes off the bench Sunday, perhaps as damaging as his 2 for 8 shooting. Kidd also had four turnovers.
"Our overall game's got to be better," Carlisle said.