PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Heat lead 3-1.
Wade and the Heat have three chances to do what they could not accomplish in two last year, close out the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, and the first comes in Game 5 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The third-year pro has been exceptional in this series, shooting 69.5 percent (41-for-59) from the field while averaging 30.8 points in four games.
Unable to solve the Pistons’ zone defense while not taking a shot in the third quarter of Game 4, Wade took charge and scored 12 of his 31 points in the final period of Monday’s 89-78 win that gave Miami a 3-1 series lead.
“They were taking me out of the game by double teaming me so I was getting off the ball,” said Wade, who hit 15 of 19 free throws. “Fourth quarter I wasn’t going to let them do that. I was going to be more aggressive and take the ball to the basket. That was my whole thing. I tried to get to the rim, and I shot 19 free throws, so that was a sign of aggressiveness.”
Wade had two key baskets to trigger the Heat’s game-breaking run, one a flip in the lane while he was tumbling to the floor that led to a 3-point play and a 63-61 Miami lead, and the other a heavily contested 21-footer over Richard Hamilton as the shot clock expired for a 69-63 advantage with 9:26 to play. Wade later assisted on 3-pointers by James Posey and Gary Payton to help push the Pistons to the brink of elimination.
“They look to go to him every time. He always answers for them,” said Detroit forward Antonio McDyess of Wade. “We trapped him, tried to get the ball out of his hands. He’ll make plays for other guys, their whole team is definitely doing the job stepping up. When he’s not scoring, everybody else, other people just seem to take over.”
A key difference for Wade and center Shaquille O’Neal, who added 21 points and nine rebounds Monday, is their health this year.
In 2005, both battled injuries—Wade a pulled rib muscle and O’Neal a deep thigh bruise—as Miami was unable to close out the Pistons. Wade’s injury caused him to sit out a Game 6 loss, and his return wasn’t enough for the Heat to win Game 7 as they were beaten at home.
“It was something that we almost could have gotten done, but almost isn’t good enough in this league, in this world,” said O’Neal on Tuesday when asked about last year. “So, you know, it’s something that stuck with us all summer. … It’s not really extra incentive. We have a chance to close it out and we’re going to take full advantage.”
Also different for the Heat are the role players supporting Wade and O’Neal.
Before returning to the sidelines, coach Pat Riley—11-0 in playoff series when leading 3-1—made offseason acquisitions for proven veterans Posey, Payton, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams. Those four players have meshed with holdovers Wade, O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Udonis Haslem while showing the needed urgency to win an NBA title.
“We know how much it means to be in this position because you have to take advantage of this moment because there’s no guarantee that you’ll be here again next year,” said the 36-year-old Mourning, seeking his first trip to the NBA Finals in a 13-year career.
“So you need someone like a Pat Riley who has coached the most playoff games in the history of this game, a man that has the experience that he has to give us that constructive criticism and remind us in his own little way how important it is to not be complacent in a situation like this.”
The two-time defending conference champion Pistons can take solace in the fact they’ve already won two elimination games this year, overcoming a 3-2 deficit in the previous round to eliminate LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Detroit, which has erased deficits of either 3-1 or 3-2 five times over the past four years, is trying to take the first step in becoming the ninth team in league history to overcome a 3-1 deficit.
“We have a lot of fight. We have been down 3-1 before, not against a team as good as the Heat, though,” said Pistons guard Chauncey Billups. “They’re playing great, man. You’ve got to give it to them. They’re great players, playing phenomenal.”
The Pistons must improve on both sides of the ball to extend the series. They are averaging just 84.8 points in this series, and the Heat are shooting 52.5 percent from the field.
“We had two fast-break points (in Game 4), we’re not getting the job done,” Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said. “We should be in the double digits as far as the fast-break points. The most important thing, what we need to do is find a way to not let them shoot 55, 57 (percent).”
If the Pistons win, Game 6 will be Friday at Miami.
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, 27.3 ppg and 6.3 apg; O’Neal, 9.5 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 19.9 ppg; Ben Wallace, 10.9 rpg; Billups, 6.2 apg.