PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Heat lead 1-0.
Unlike last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat appear to have role players they can count on, and that may be the biggest reason the Pistons are trying to avoid leaving home in an 0-2 hole.
Detroit also needs to get its shooting on track, having hit 38 percent from the field while Miami shot 56 percent in a 91-86 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday to immediately steal home-court advantage.
“We’re playing with an unbelievable rhythm right now,” O’Neal said. “That’s what it’s going to take, a total team effort, especially against a championship team like Detroit.”
O’Neal, ousted from the playoffs by the Pistons the last two years, was held to 14 points in the series opener and only two of those came in the second half when he was plagued by foul trouble. Fouls also limited Wade’s playing time as he took a playoff-low 11 shots from the field but scored 25 points in 27 minutes, two fewer than O’Neal.
Every other Miami starter played more, and Gary Payton had 35 minutes off the bench.
Antoine Walker continued a resurgence that started in the second round against New Jersey, scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds. The point guard tandem of Payton and Jason Williams combined for 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting, and Alonzo Mourning contributed six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 16 minutes.
“It’s not like we haven’t ever been here. We know how to make plays,” Payton said. “When we get the basketball, we’re going to make things happen. It’s not like we’re rookies or anything. We’ve been in this situation, Eastern Conference finals before, the Western, so it’s no big thing for us.”
What would be very big for Miami is emerging from The Palace of Auburn Hills with another win. The Heat have never lost a series after winning the first two games.
The Pistons have trailed 2-0 seven times in a best-of-seven series and have never come back to win it, though they did force a Game 7 in last year’s NBA Finals against San Antonio. The only time Detroit lost the first two games at home was the 2003 conference finals against the Nets, who went on to sweep.
“The game becomes huge, no question,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. “We have to grab the momentum of the series back.”
Detroit did overcome a 3-2 series deficit to defeat Miami in this round last year.
Wade averaged 25.8 points in that series and O’Neal added 20.6 per game, but the only other Heat player with a double-figure scoring average was Eddie Jones (11.1), and he shot just 37.7 percent from the field. And, in Game 6 with Wade sidelined by a strained rib muscle, O’Neal scored 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting while his teammates combined to shoot less than 33 percent (15-of-46) in a 91-66 loss.
Game 7 wasn’t much better, with Miami losing 88-82 at home. That series led team president Pat Riley to overhaul the roster in the offseason, bringing in Walker, Payton, Williams and James Posey while getting rid of starters Eddie Jones and Damon Jones as well as reserves Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler.
Walker has averaged 19 points over the last four games, making 15-of-32 from 3-point range, and Williams has a 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the same span.
“Our guys are stepping up,” Wade said after Game 1. “Alonzo played big for us tonight on both ends of the floor, Antoine was once again solid, Jason hit some shots, so we had a lot of guys step up tonight and do different things. For you to win this time of the year that’s what’s going to have to happen.”
The Pistons, meanwhile, may need Rasheed Wallace to get healthy in a hurry. The mercurial forward was limited to seven points and three rebounds while going 1-of-4 from 3-point range—Detroit was 5-for-21—as he fought through a sprained ankle suffered in the second round.
“He looked worn a little bit,” Saunders said. “We need to get rejuvenated quick.”
The Pistons are 4-0 this postseason when Wallace scores at least 20 points, 4-5 when he doesn’t.
With the series heading to Miami on Saturday for Game 3, the Pistons are in the middle of a three-week stretch in which they play every other day. The Heat got six days’ rest before Tuesday’s win.
“We seem to always when our backs are against the wall, be very attentive and very focused,” Billups said. “It’s nothing new for us. We always put ourselves in this situation, not on purpose, they put us in the situation, but we’re going to be fine, man, going to be fine.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Heat - 2nd seed; beat Chicago Bulls 4-2, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-1, conference semifinals. Pistons - 1st seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat Cleveland Cavaliers 4-3, conference semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Wade, 25.9 ppg and 6.8 apg; O’Neal, 9.1 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 20.4 ppg; Ben Wallace, 11.2 rpg; Billups, 6.2 apg.