PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Heat lead 3-2.
Just when their renowned defensive prowess was starting to come into question, the Detroit Pistons showed they still have it.
But that was in Detroit.
Now they may need to display the same type of defense in Miami if they are to send the Eastern Conference finals to a Game 7 for the second straight year and spoil the Heat’s best shot at reaching the NBA Finals for the first time.
Detroit lost by double digits in Games 3 and 4, the only ones in this series to be played at Miami. Those wins gave the Heat a 3-1 lead, leaving them three chances to end the Pistons’ reign as conference champions.
Miami could not take advantage of the first, losing 91-78 at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Wednesday. The Heat had scored at least 88 points in every other game of the series.
“They took their defense up to another level,” said Miami coach Pat Riley, whose team was held scoreless over the final 3 1/2 minutes. “It was very intense.”
The Pistons held the Heat to 44.2 percent shooting from the field, forced 16 turnovers, made eight steals and blocked seven shots. The impressive demonstration of defense, highlighted by Ben Wallace stuffing a Shaquille O’Neal slam attempt to force a jump ball, was a reminder of how Detroit became a powerhouse and reached the NBA Finals the last two years under coach Larry Brown.
New coach Flip Saunders helped the Pistons improve offensively this season, though some were beginning to wonder if that focus had taken away from the team’s defensive superiority.
“We just came out aggressive like we talked about and played Pistons basketball,” said Chauncey Billups, who had 17 points and 10 assists in Game 5. “There’s pressure on them now, now that they are home.”
That’s not the way Dwyane Wade sees it.
“Ain’t no pressure on us at all, we have a golden opportunity to win Game 6 on our home floor,” Wade said after being held to a series-low 23 points Wednesday. “They’re the defending conference champions, there’s no pressure on us.”
Defensive pressure is clearly important for the Pistons, whose two wins in this series came when they held Miami below 45 percent shooting from the floor. The Heat shot better than 54 percent in each of their three wins.
Miami had two chances to knock off the Pistons in last year’s conference finals, only to lose at Detroit in Game 6—without an injured Wade—before dropping Game 7 at home. This time, Game 7 would be back at The Palace on Sunday.
“Right now we’re approaching every game like a tournament. You lose and you go home,” Wallace said. “That’s how we try and take it, just one game at a time, one possession at a time, try to get one stop at a time and execute on the offensive end.”
Controlling Wade could be a key. He was held to two points over the final nine minutes Wednesday and finished eight below his average in the series.
O’Neal scored 19 points, but went 1-for-5 at the foul line and the Heat finished 6-of-20.
As important as Wade and O’Neal are, the Heat’s role players can make a huge difference. In Miami’s two defeats, Wade and O’Neal accounted for 95 points and shot 56.3 percent while their teammates totaled 71 points and hit 31.6 percent.
“Well, we got the shots that we wanted. We can’t complain about that,” said Wade, who shot 11-for-20. “Guys just didn’t make the shots that we normally make. I’m confident in my teammates that we’ll get an opportunity in Game 6 and we’ll make them.”
Tayshaun Prince was the difference offensively for Detroit on Wednesday, scoring a playoff career-high 29 points and shooting 11-of-17 from the field.
In the Pistons’ wins in this series, Prince has taken advantage of his matchup with the defensively unreliable Walker by averaging 26.5 points and 9.0 rebounds. Prince has averaged 11.3 points and 4.0 boards while shooting 33 percent in the other three games.
“I’ve got responsibility if I’m having a good night,” Prince said. “I’ve got to continue to try to carry them.”
His production is vital for a team without one of its top scorers at full strength. Rasheed Wallace tweaked his ankle in the second round against Cleveland and is averaging just 10.6 points in this series, shooting below 37 percent from the field and 5-for-22 from 3-point range. He was 25-for-52 from beyond the arc in the first two rounds while averaging 15.8 points.
On four occasions over the past four postseasons, the Pistons have overcome a 3-1 or 3-2 deficit to win a series. Also during that span, when Detroit or its opponents have had a chance to win a series, the Pistons are 19-2.
“They understand what’s at hand,” Saunders said. “You can’t be afraid to lose, afraid to fail. If you’re looking at it where you’re going to be afraid to fail, then you play timid and this team has really not done that in these type of situations.”
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, 27.0 ppg and 6.2 apg; O’Neal, 9.3 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 19.6 ppg; Ben Wallace, 10.7 rpg; Billups, 6.4 apg.