Dirk Nowitzki had the 101-degree fever.

LeBron James was the one who looked sick.

Forget M.J.

The King isn't even the best player on his own team, at least not in these NBA finals.

While Dwyane Wade put it all on the line Tuesday night — shooting, rebounding, blocking shots — James seemed content playing a bit role, especially in the fourth quarter when Miami frittered away a nine-point lead that allowed Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to escape with an 86-83 victory.

James scored all of eight points in a game that could've given the Heat a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Now the series is tied at two games apiece, and time is running out on James making his mark on this series. For the first time in 90 playoff games, he failed to score in double figures.

Forget "The Decision."

This was an even bigger debacle.

"I definitely didn't play great offensively. I've got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively," James said, not nearly as defiant as he was after a lackluster Game 3.

"When I get two guys on me, I try to find my teammates. At the same time, I've got to keep myself in an offensive rhythm while I'm doing that."

He didn't do much of anything in Game 4, just lingering around at the 3-point line while the ailing Nowitzki led the Mavericks back at the other end of the court.

The big German turned in a performance that was Jordanesque, scoring 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter on a night when he clearly felt downright crummy. He rekindled memories of No. 23 scoring 38 points while battling the flu in the '97 finals.

At the postgame news conference, Nowitzki sniffled and coughed and held up his jacket over his mouth while listening to questions, not wanting to infect anyone with whatever was ailing him.

But he looked just fine in the closing seconds, darting into the lane to bank in a right-handed layup that sealed the victory for the Mavericks. It looked like something Michael might do.

James? He was nowhere to be found, putting up just 11 shots and making only three of them.

A teammate would set a pick-and-roll, but he seemed content just passing off to someone else. He went to the foul line a mere four times, almost unfathomable for a player of his skill and stature.

There was little aggression and hardly any passion, the very things that Wade keeps preaching are an absolutely necessity when it's down to two teams that are so closely matched. With each of the past three games coming down to the final shot, the series is looking as if it'll go the distance.

Wade sure knows what he needs to do. He put it up 20 times in Game 4, scoring 32 points. The guard also came up with a couple of dazzling blocks, one of them on 7-footer Tyson Chandler.

"My teammates count on me being more than one-dimensional," Wade said. "Obviously, I was in an offensive rhythm. That's just one side of it. If I've got to chase Jason Terry around on defense, I've got to do that too. I'm just trying to make plays. Sometimes it's a block or a steal or a rebound. This is the finals. I just want to make sure that every night I leave the court, I've left it all out there."

Wade should know. He was the MVP of Miami's championship in 2006.

As he uttered those words, James — swept in his only other finals appearance in 2007 by the Spurs — was sitting right next to him.

Wonder if he was listening?

Clearly, it's time for him to quit being deferential to Wade and the other member of Miami's Big Three, Chris Bosh, who scored 24 points. While James sounded like the good teammate when he referred to his squad as the "Heatles" — a super group not unlike the Beatles — no one expected him to turn into Ringo Starr.

He's supposed to be THE star, or at least one of 'em, the John Lennon to Wade's Paul McCartney, each of them ready to carry the load on any given night, especially at this point in the season. Instead, his Game 4 numbers were more comparable to Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, the roadies on this tour.

While clearly perturbed by his performance — and don't doubt that James will be highly motivated for Game 5 Thursday night — the fact remains that he's averaging just 17.3 points in this series. He is trailing both Wade (29.8) and Bosh (18.3), as well as Nowitzki (26.5) on the other side.

Most troubling, there's a part of James that still doesn't seem to get how this star thing works.

"The fact that this happened in a loss is the anger part for me," he said. "If I had scored eight points and we had won the game, I wouldn't really care. The fact that I could've done more offensively to help my team, that's the anger part for myself. I need to come back in Game 5 and do the things that need to be done to help our team win."

Imagine Jordan scoring eight points in a finals game (which never happened, by the way). Think he'd be happy about it, even if his team won?


James didn't trade Cleveland for South Beach to play a supporting part, even on one of the best threesomes in NBA history. This is supposed to be his time.

"I'm confident in my ability," he said. "It's just about going out there and knocking 'em down. My teammates have given me confidence all year, all postseason. I've got to go out there and make 'em count."

After James led the Heat to a series-clinching victory over Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, a very intriguing observer said he might just "be the greatest player to ever play the game."

That premature assessment came from Scottie Pippen, who just happened to play alongside Jordan on all six of the Bulls' championship teams.

Well, if this keeps up, James might go down as another Pippen.

You know, the guy who accepted a supporting part.

Nowitzki could wind up being Heir Jordan.


National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963