AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP)—Shaquille O’Neal was about to throw down another backboard-shaking dunk.
Ben Wallace wasn’t having it.
The 6-foot-7 Wallace leaped and stuffed Shaq’s slam—forcing a jump ball, putting the 7-1 O’Neal on his back and sparking Detroit’s defense that refused to let the Pistons’ season end.
“It was a big play—a momentum-changer,” Wallace said of the third-quarter block.
“You know it was a foul,” O’Neal said. “Don’t ask dumb questions.”
Whatever, the Pistons got back to their swarming ways when the Miami Heat had the ball, and Tayshaun Prince scored a career playoff-high 29 points to lift Detroit to a 91-78 win Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat did not score in the final 3 1/2 minutes while Detroit pulled away with the last nine points of the game. Miami also hurt itself by going 6-of-20 from the free throw line.
“We just came out aggressive like we talked about and played Pistons basketball,” Chauncey Billups said. “There’s pressure on them now, now that they are home.”
Miami hosts Game 6 on Friday night with a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. If the Heat lose, they have to come back to suburban Detroit for Game 7 on Sunday.
“Ain’t no pressure on us at all, we have a golden opportunity to win Game 6 on our home floor,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “They’re the defending conference champions, there’s no pressure on us.”
Wade scored a series-low 23 points—eight below his previous series average — and O’Neal had 19 points for the Heat.
“They played hard and like a desperate team,” Wade said.
Billups had 17 points and 10 assists, Richard Hamilton had 16 points and a career playoff-high 10 rebounds, and reserve Antonio McDyess provided a boost with 10 of his 12 points coming after halftime.
“Everybody brought energy,” Prince said. “When we move, we’re a better basketball team.”
Miami, which trailed by as much as 11 in the first half, made it 51-all early in the third quarter.
Detroit’s defense created a little cushion in what was a tightly contested game for much of the night.
Prince had a steal and a dunk, then on the ensuing possession Wallace brought the crowd to its feet with his eye-popping play—no matter what O’Neal thought of it.
About a minute later, Wallace’s three-point play—yes, he made the free throw—gave the Pistons a 60-53 lead.
Detroit was ahead 73-65 after three quarters, and Prince had already tied his career playoff-high with 24 points. The Pistons stayed in control during the final quarter.
“They took their defense up to another level,” Miami coach Pat Riley said. “It was very intense.”
Despite the loss, history says the Heat will reach the NBA Finals for the first time. Teams leading conference or division finals 3-1, like Miami was against Detroit, have advanced 40 of 43 times and 16 straight.
But the Pistons have been a trend-breaking team with their comebacks while becoming the first team since the Chicago Bulls of the early 1990s to reach the conference finals in four straight years.
With four of its current starters playing key roles, Detroit rallied to advance after trailing the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the first round of the 2003 playoffs.
That became the first of four 3-2 deficits the Pistons have overcome the past four postseasons—including last year’s Eastern Conference finals against Miami, and the previous round this year against Cleveland.
When Detroit or its opponents have had a chance to win a series during its past four playoff runs, the Pistons are 19-2.
“They understand what’s at hand,” Detroit coach Flip 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.”
The Pistons missed six of their first seven shots—perhaps showing some nerves with their season and reputation on the line—but trailed by just three points.
Four Pistons contributed to an 8-0 run that put them ahead 10-5. Detroit maintained the lead and was up 25-20 after the first quarter.
Another combination of four Pistons combined to score eight unanswered points, putting Detroit ahead 35-24—its largest lead up to that point. Miami responded with a 16-4 run, taking the lead on Wade’s dunk off Alonzo Mourning’s full-court pass.
Detroit led 47-43 at halftime, with Prince and Hamilton combining for 29 points and Wade being held to 10—his lowest total at halftime in the series.
Prince’s previous career playoff-high was 24 points, a total he reached most recently in Game 2 against the Heat. .. The Pistons lost three of their previous four Game 5s. … Ben Wallace, the Defensive Player of the Year, had three blocks—two more than in the previous four games. … McDyess had a brace protecting his left wrist, which he injured in Game 4, and after a dunk early in the second quarter Wednesday, he grimaced with pain as he walked off the court. … “American Idol” finalist Paris Bennett sang the national anthem. … Faces in the crowd included Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom, Hall of Fame singer Bob Seger, Kid Rock and Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, who just returned from his second trip to Kuwait, where he coached and visited U.S. military personnel.