DALLAS – The stars struggled, and then they disappeared. Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade — three of the sport's best couldn't take control in the fourth quarter of the NBA finals' Game 1.
So the Dallas Mavericks climbed aboard their Jet: Jason Terry, with a soaring grace befitting his nickname, found the basket just enough to push his error-prone club past the erratic Miami Heat, 90-80 Thursday night to claim the series opener.
Even Terry was humbled by a missed fourth-quarter layup attempt that he nearly jammed between the backboard and the rim, but he recovered to match his playoff high with 32 points.
"Jason bailed us all out," said Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse, whose wobbly jumper with 1:02 left clinched it.
Both franchises' first appearance on the NBA's biggest stage contained all the jitters and mistakes you might expect. Terry, the point guard who ostensibly replaced Steve Nash two years ago, was the Mavericks' unlikely savior with 20 points in the first half and 12 in the fourth quarter.
"(I don't have) anything to prove," Terry said. "I just feel that I'm a much better shooter than what I've shown in this season's playoffs. With me, it's all about hard work and perseverance. ... I tried to get the big fellow involved and spread it around, but I was there when they needed me."
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in Dallas, with Game 3 in Miami on Tuesday.
The clubs' finals debut wasn't pretty: The Mavericks went nearly 7 minutes between fourth-quarter field goals, and Dallas held the Heat to two free throws over the final 5:13. With a sellout crowd appreciating the result more than the method, Dallas escaped with a sloppy but satisfying victory — and just 16 points from Nowitzki, their superstar.
"I thought we were a little frozen up," Nowitzki said. "It's a big stage. Nobody has really been here before besides (coach) Avery (Johnson). ... We weren't making shots. We weren't making good plays, not swinging the ball."
Wade finished with 28 points for the Heat, but managed just three in the fourth quarter while feeling the effects of the sinus infection that's bugged him for a week. O'Neal had 17 points and seven rebounds — and the three-time champion went 1-for-9 at the free throw line, leading Miami's abysmal 7-for-19 performance.
"Throughout my career, I've known that for my team to win a championship, I have to step up at the line," O'Neal said. "I will. I was probably thinking about it too much."
Terry was the first Dallas player other than Nowitzki to lead the club in scoring in a victory since Game 4 of the second round against the Spurs, when Terry had 32. Though the fans love his energy and all-around game, he was inconsistent in three opening rounds highlighted by a gritty performance in a decisive Game 7 victory over San Antonio.
After Terry hit consecutive 3-pointers, the Mavs had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. But Terry inexplicably missed that open fast-break layup — and the Heat scored the next seven points while holding Dallas scoreless for 4 1/2 minutes.
"I got a little too excited, was running a little too fast and got ahead of myself," Terry said bashfully.
The creeping unease in Dallas didn't go away until Wade and Antoine Walker missed big fourth-quarter shots. Though most of the game was played at Miami's favored tempo, the Heat struggled for consistent offense before going 5-for-20 from the field in the fourth quarter.
"I felt OK. I was able to get my legs back," Wade said. "This will be a good time to rest, and I should be OK for Sunday. ... J.T. hit all the big shots. He looked like a great player. We have to do a better job of knowing his strengths and making him take tougher shots."
These are the first NBA finals since 1971 between two first-timers, although there are champions on both benches. O'Neal and Miami coach Pat Riley have seven rings between them, and Johnson won it all as a player with the 1999 Spurs.
In search of their first championship banner for owner Mark Cuban, the Mavericks took the opener and the historic 73 percent success rate of the winner in Game 1.
"It isn't whether or not a guy or two guys score. It's a fight," Riley said. "This is what it's about. (It's) competitive, and it's going to be ugly and sloppy at times."
The long-suffering Mavs fans packed into this beautiful arena didn't mind: They hugged each other spontaneously even before the opening tip, finally enjoying a finals after 26 often-miserable seasons in the league.
Cuban, the billionaire whose cash and enthusiasm raised the Mavericks from mediocrity, wrote a semi-running blog about his club's first finals game throughout the night.
"This is just one game," Cuban wrote afterward. "It feels great to win, but it's just the first move in the chess match."
Television ratings have been way up during the most exciting, unpredictable playoff season in recent memory — and the finals opener lived up to the first three rounds, even if wasn't quite as dramatic as the best games of the spring.
Miami jumped to an early 11-point lead with 70 percent shooting and 13 first-quarter points from Wade. Dallas calmly recovered, holding the Heat scoreless in the final 3:59 of the first half and taking the lead on Nowitzki's second field goal, a leaning jumper at the halftime buzzer.
The Heat drew actual first blood when Stackhouse got a bloody cut on his nose from a collision with O'Neal in the second quarter. Stackhouse made one of his two free throws before heading to the locker room.