PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Miami leads 2-1.
The Pistons find themselves in a critical situation as they look to avoid a 3-1 hole in the Eastern Conference finals when the series continues at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Heat trailed by five when Wade drew his fifth foul and headed to the bench with 7:57 remaining, but Wade’s teammates put together a 13-4 run and took an eight-point lead before he returned with 3:30 left.
“This is a very good ballclub, it’s not just one or two guys,” said Wade, who scored 40 points in the Heat’s 92-86 win in Game 2.
Miami scored 11 points from the free-throw line during the fourth-quarter surge, and Detroit lost control to such a degree that Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups drew technical fouls for screaming at the officials.
“We’re too good of a team to have a meltdown like we had tonight,” Detroit’s Richard Hamilton said. “This late in the season, the Eastern Conference finals, we can’t afford to have those types of letdowns. We let little ticky-tack stuff bother us, and we can’t do that.”
“It wasn’t the Heat. They played well, but they aren’t what got under our skin,” Billups said.
The statistics did not show too much of a disparity in the calls—Detroit was whistled for 33 fouls to Miami’s 29, and the Pistons went to the line 54 times to the Heat’s 43. But Miami attempted 29 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, making 22.
“We kind of lost our poise,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said, “and as a result of that we dug ourselves a hole with a chance to win.”
It’s uncertain what role, if any, Brown’s uncertain future in Detroit played in his team’s uncharacteristic meltdown. He would not comment on a report out of Cleveland that he had to decide by Monday whether to accept the position of Cavaliers team president.
Reached Monday by The Associated Press, Brown refused comment other than to say: “If I’m healthy, my goal is to be the coach of the Detroit Pistons. That’s the only thing that’s really real.”
A 9-0 run gave Detroit an 84-79 lead in the fourth Sunday, but Miami responded by scoring 10 of the next 14 points.
“We kept our poise, man. We didn’t lose it,” Jones said.
Wade scored 21 points in the first half, but was limited in the final 24 minutes by Lindsey Hunter’s defense and some foul trouble of his own.
O’Neal, slowed by a bruised thigh and not a huge offensive factor for Miami in Games 1 and 2, bounced back with his best game of the series. He went 8-for-13 from the field and 8-for-12 from the foul line.
“I told him before the game we really needed him,” Wade said of O’Neal. “He knew we needed him and this is where we needed him the most—on the road in a hostile environment. And he stepped up big for us. He hit big free throws down the stretch.
“That’s the kind of player he is, and it was a great win for us.”
Hamilton led the Pistons with 33 points, but Billups struggled through 6-for-19 shooting to finish with 18 points for Detroit, which missed 15 of 43 free throws.
Slowed by foul problems, Ben Wallace had just seven rebounds, ending his postseason streak of grabbing at least 10 rebounds at 17 games.
A win Tuesday will send the Heat back to Miami with an opportunity to clinch the franchise’s first conference championship Thursday night.
“It’s a must-win for us,” Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said of Game 4. “Obviously, we don’t want to go to Miami down 3-1.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Heat - 1st seed; beat New Jersey Nets 4-0, first round; beat Washington Wizards 4-0, conference semifinals. Pistons - 2nd seed; beat Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, first round; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, conference semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Wade, 29.2 ppg and 7.2 apg; Haslem, 9.8 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 20.6 ppg; Ben Wallace, 12.3 rpg; Billups, 6.6 apg.