Miami (6-8) and Detroit (9-5) face each other Thursday for the first time since the Eastern Conference Finals as they meet at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Heat have played without Shaquille O’Neal for the last eight games and are expected to be without him for the next four to six weeks as he recovers from knee surgery. The 34-year-old center was originally diagnosed with a hyperextended knee, but an MRI revealed more damage than previously thought and he underwent surgery Nov. 19.
Although Miami has won its last two games, the team is 4-6 without O’Neal.
“My brothers are out there struggling right now, and I should be out there with them,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to watch.”
Wade has picked up the offensive slack in O’Neal’s absence recently, averaging 34.7 points and 13.3 assists his last three games.
Miami also received 30 points from its bench and shot a season-high 58.7 percent from the field, the second straight game it has set a season high in shooting percentage.
“We had contributions from everybody tonight and it enabled us to get the win,” said Alonzo Mourning, who recorded a season-high seven blocks. “We have to get back to play well at home again. … We have to get back to more consistent play.”
This is the first meeting between the teams since the Heat eliminated the Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference finals en route to their first-ever NBA title. O’Neal averaged 21.7 points and 10.5 rebounds during that series against Detroit, which also struggled at the start of the season.
The Pistons started 3-5, and many attributed the rough start to the loss of center Ben Wallace, who left the team as a free agent over the summer.
I’m so tired of you all talking about Ben,” forward Antonio McDyess said earlier in the season. “He’s gone, we’re not going to get him back. It’s about us trying to come together as a team to find our identity now that he’s gone.”
Detroit went 36-of-40 from the free-throw line, getting 17 more attempts than the Wizards did.
The Pistons, who were the NBA’s 12th-lowest scoring team last season, have scored at least 100 points in five of the six victories.
“One thing we have learned to do is be able to play different styles. We’re able to go small when people go small. We’re able to play in a fast-paced game. We’re able to play in some grind-it-out games,” coach Flip Saunders said. “We’re able to do a little bit of everything.”
Saunders said that despite O’Neal’s absence and Miami’s struggles, he’s anticipating a close game between the teams. The last seven regular-season games have been decided by an average of seven points.
“Any time the two teams put on their jerseys, it’s just a natural rivalry,” he said. “The two teams are going to compete against each other. It’s a healthy rivalry and that’s what makes good basketball.”