The Heat almost see this as a must-win game, needing to finally prove they’re capable of beating an elite team and show they can still challenge the Pistons for East supremacy.
“We have the best team in the league coming in here,” Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal said Saturday. “We have to do everything right, especially in our building. It’s going to be an exciting place Sunday, and we look forward to stepping up to the challenge.”
The Heat have yet to do that against the top teams in the league. They’re a combined 0-7 against Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix, owners of the NBA’s best records.
Miami is 1-9 against the other division leaders, with the only win coming over New Jersey in the first week of the season.
“It’s a little bit discouraging, but it’s something we can’t dwell on,” O’Neal said. “We have to realize guys are going to play way above their heads when they play us. We have to find a way to match their effort.”
Besides having more All-Stars and allowing 6 1/2 fewer points per game—some are starting to call Miami’s defense very suspect—the Pistons are 11 1/2 games better than the Heat and have been significantly better against top competition.
Detroit is 4-1 against the best three teams from the West, and won 106-101 on Dec. 29 in the only game this season with Miami. It was the teams’ first matchup since the Pistons beat the Heat in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals.
Just as they did in that series to overcome a 3-2 deficit, the Pistons were the ones making the clutch shots and key defensive plays in the final minutes of the Dec. 29 meeting.
“We know it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere,” Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace said. “We only played them once, and we can’t sit here and brag and have a chip on our shoulder like, ‘We put them out last year and we beat them early this year.’ Because you can be beat on any given night in this league.”
Detroit hasn’t been beaten on too many nights this season, going into this matchup with a league-best 41-8 record despite losing three road games over the past two weeks.
None of its losses have been nearly as bad as what the Heat suffered Thursday, getting routed 112-76 at Dallas. Miami committed 18 turnovers and allowed the Mavericks to shoot 56.2 percent from the field.
“We haven’t played very well against the top teams in the league, and everybody believes they know what’s going to happen to us come April,” Miami’s Antoine Walker said. “Sunday is a big game for our confidence—to get a win against a quality team.”