EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Pretend you get to pick one of two players:
Final 4½: Wade takes over
Player A is a guy who scored 43 points and knocked the opposing superstar out with an elbow to the mouth.
Player B is a guy who scored 30 points and was taken to the locker room with a mouth full of blood.
Pretty easy choice, eh? It's got to be A. Right?
What we neglected to tell you was that Player B would go to the foul line 11 times in the final 4½ minutes of the fourth quarter and knock down all 11. He'd also have the ball in his hands at the start of each and every critical possession down the stretch, and he'd make the right thing happen almost every single time.
Player A, meanwhile, has a bit of a ballhandling deficiency. And when his opponents came at him with an aggressive double-team near midcourt when the game was about to turn, he coughed it up both times.
Game 3 of the Nets-Heat series wasn't decided until the final five minutes, but when it came time for someone to take over, that someone was Wade, who scored 15 of his points in the final stanza to lead Miami past New Jersey 103-92 Friday night for a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Sunday night.
"Both guys are great one-on-one players, but you saw how Dwyane Wade finished the game with the ball in his hands. The team was up and we needed to come down and make plays, and he made plays," teammate Shandon Anderson said.
Things were going fairly well for the Nets by the midpoint of the fourth quarter, a drive by Carter through four defenders having given them an 81-80 lead with 4:34 left.
On Miami's next possession, Wade scooted around Jason Kidd on the perimeter and got inside for a three-point play (Carter fouled him) that put Miami ahead for good.
On New Jersey's next possession, the Heat quickly trapped Carter after he crossed midcourt, and Gary Payton came up with a steal that led to a breakaway bucket.
Next play, same thing, except this time it was Shaquille O'Neal stripping Carter and tying him up for a jump ball. Shaq won the tip, leading to another drive by Wade around Kidd that led to two foul shots and an 87-81 lead.
"At times, people don't show hard on him like that, and he can be real casual with the ball," Payton said of Carter. "And I don't think he was expecting a hard trap like Shaq did, and it just happened. We put our hands on the ball, and most of the time we grab him. But this time we were hitting at the ball, and when he lost it, we got it."
After Carter answered with a difficult fadeaway, James Posey stole the ball from Kidd in the low post, and O'Neal converted an alley-oop dunk off a pass from Wade. Another jumper by Carter was followed by a perfectly threaded pass by Wade to the cutting Udonis Haslem, who was fouled and made both shots.
Wade knocked down a pair from the line to make it 97-89 with 52.8 seconds left, and Carter bricked a pair from the line just seven-tenths of a second later.
The game was all but over, and the grimace Carter wore after those two misses was even grumpier than the look Wade sported a quarter earlier after Carter's elbow caught him in the mouth.
In the end, it was Carter and the Nets who were bloodied -- and it was Wade who exited the building looking like the most valuable superstar in this series.
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AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
With the Suns up 92-91, Steve Nash wound down the shot clock, nudged the Clippers' Corey Maggette back and shot this fadeaway over Maggette with four seconds left in the game. The shot swished and Phoenix held on when a last-second 3 attempt by Vladimir Radmanovic clanged off the rim. Final score: 94-91.
The debate already has begun: Just how important is it that the Clippers bring back veteran point guard and inveterate chatterbox Sam Cassell?
Those arguing "not very" got a load of evidence in the Clips' 94-91 loss Friday night at the Staples Center. The Suns now lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.
Backup point guard Shaun Livingston, meanwhile, gained ground on supplanting Cassell as the team's floor leader.
With Livingston at the controls and Cassell on the bench to start the fourth quarter, the Clippers erased a nine-point deficit to take a three-point lead midway through the period.
The formula was simple: Load up Vladimir Radmanovic for 3s (14 fourth-quarter points, 4-of-5 from the arc) and clamp down on the Suns, who missed 9 of 11 shots.
Livingston was instrumental in it all, with three assists and three points and tenacious defense that short-circuited the Suns' vaunted pick-and-roll.
Cassell returned with 77 seconds left and promptly bricked a 3. Coach Mike Dunleavy went the rest of the way trying to keep Cassell on the floor for offense and slipping in Quinton Ross when he could for his D.
Now, the Clippers wouldn't be where they are without Cassell. He infused them with a confidence and resilience that has never been associated with LA's blue and red "other" team before, or not since Mark Jackson ran the point for them.
Similarly, Livingston isn't entirely ready to take over. His jump shot is still iffy enough that defenders can lay back on him, and he has a coltish exuberance that clouds his decision-making at times.
But with talk that the 36-year-old Cassell wants a two-year deal and would never settle for coming off the bench behind Livingston, which might be best by next fall, the Clippers may be forced to let Cassell walk.
One school of thought is that the team should give him a fat one-year offer ($8 million, say) and see if he goes for it. That keeps him around as a security blanket and mentor who could be moved to a team looking for cap relief if the relationship soured.
For his part, Cassell has made it clear he won't let sentiment or an affinity for SoCal's sunny clime get in the way.
"I got to get mines," says Cassell.
Just as the Clippers and Livingston have to get theirs. It hasn't happened yet, but it's looking as if Sam I Am has infused one more NBA franchise with his special brand of heady hoops and crafty clutch shooting, only to move on looking for his reward elsewhere.
It happens. It just seems to happen to Sam a lot.
-- Ric Bucher from Staples Center in Los Angeles
Dwyane Wade made the big shots, but also give credit to Pat Riley's lineup change for helping to turn around Game 3 against the Nets. With Jason Williams struggling offensively (seven points, four of which came on gift fouls from Jacque Vaughn), and Antoine Walker continuing to have problems matching up at the defensive end, Riley kept two of his starters on the pine down the stretch.
In their place he used Gary Payton and James Posey, and Miami's defensive intensity skyrocketed as a result. Those two were on the court the entire time in a 4:31 stretch of the fourth quarter where the Nets managed just one basket, turning the Heat's three-point deficit into an eight-point lead in the process.
Payton and Posey made most of the stops in that span, combining for three steals in a five-possession stretch. And Posey keyed another steal when his defense on Vince Carter forced him near half-court, where Shaquille O'Neal poked the ball away to create a jump ball he eventually won.
Of course, it would have helped if poor Carter had more help, as Miami's bench boost stood in sharp contrast to New Jersey's lack of support. Carter was the only Net to score in the final 7:24, with Clifford Robinson's suspension forcing the already-thin Nets to turn to bit players like Lamond Murray and John Thomas.
Throw in Nenad Krstic's lackluster play and Vaughn's attempt to set an NBA record for most fouls committed against men more than 40 feet from the basket, and it's surprising the Nets kept it close as long as they did. They'll need much more help from the backups to prevail in what shapes up to be a must-win Game 4 on Sunday.
-- John Hollinger
Al Bello/Getty Images
In one of the game's big plays -- in more ways than one -- Shaquille O'Neal poked the ball away from Vince Carter and dove on the floor to claim his share with 3:47 remaining in the fourth quarter. Shaq won the subsequent jump ball and the Heat built on their narrow lead and pulled away to win 103-92.
Dwyane Wade was amazing down the stretch as the Heat came from behind in the fourth quarter to win in Jersey.
Heat win in Jersey
Phoenix needed a total team effort to pull out an atypical Suns game over the Clippers.
Suns take defensive struggle in L.A.
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
The Suns just won the game they never win.
They won a game decided by three points or fewer for the first time all season even though they had none of their usual prerequisites.
They didn't score 100 points.
They shot only 37 percent from the field.
They missed a whopping 15 consecutive 3s in one second-half stretch.
"Give me those numbers before the game," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy admitted, "and I'm thinking we're winning this game."
So how did they do it?
This much I know for sure: Phoenix went back to Los Angeles with a healthy amount of self-assurance for a team that got mauled at home in Game 2.
Reason being: Phoenix was returning to Staples Center, where it had already played three playoff games before Thursday night and where it had already experienced the most devastating loss of the season (Game 4 against the Lakers) and the most clutch performance of the season before this one (Game 6 against the Lakers).
It's a stretch to say that the Suns were humming Randy Newman's tune on the bus ride over, but the Clips clearly didn't have an overwhelming home-court advantage for the biggest game in franchise history.
As coach Mike D'Antoni told me the other day: "We do like L.A."
They have to after this escape.
The inexhaustible Shawn Marion (32 points, 19 rebounds and some unexpected checking of Sam Cassell) played his most Matrix-esque game of the playoffs with 47 minutes of high activity to highlight a total team rebound: Phoenix took down 46 boards compared to the 57-26 margin in the Game 2 nightmare.
Tim Thomas, meanwhile, replaced James Jones as a starter and was big yet again in L.A. as the Suns supplemented their dogged board work with defense as pesky as they can muster.
Throw in an evening of wire-to-wire dysfunction from the hosts, and it didn't matter that L.A. successfully hounded Steve Nash out of Game 4 for long stretches.
You could trace some of the Suns' offensive woes to the Clips religiously running two long defenders at the MVP, but you also couldn't miss them cooling off their own scorching star (Elton Brand) with hurried and questionable first-half shot selection ... and you couldn't miss the needless fourth-quarter fouls that put the Suns on the free-throw line when they were struggling to score at all.
"It was certainly not a typical Suns win, that's for sure," Nash said.
-- Marc Stein
Dwyane Wade scored 15 points over the final five minutes of Friday's game, making him the first player to score that many points over the last five minutes since Paul Pierce had 18 points over the last five in a 103-100 Celtics' win over the Pacers on April 19, 2003.
Wade made all 11 of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, the most makes without a miss in any quarter of a playoff game since Pierce went 11-for-11 in the fourth quarter of the aforementioned game.
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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Dwyane Wade's repeated forays to the basket -- despite a bloody mouth suffered in the game -- eventually got him and the Heat past Vince Carter and the Nets.