MIAMI -- Hey, Miami Heat, forget about Game 7 of the 2005 Eastern Conference finals. Can't go back in time. The loss to the Detroit Pistons can't be changed.
Heat win sets up huge Game 4
The most important game in franchise history is Monday: Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals -- yes, the most important.
Win and the road to the NBA Finals is re-routed through South Beach. Lose and it's back toward Motown, with the two-time defending East champion Pistons brewing in confidence and needing to win only their home games to eliminate Miami once again.
It's that simple.
"Monday is a big game for both teams, a real big game for us," Heat center Shaquille O'Neal said. "We've just got to continue to play well."
The Heat took a major step toward getting to their first NBA Finals with a 98-83 victory over the Pistons in Game 3 of the East Finals on Saturday night. Miami now owns a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Pistons have to win on Monday night in Miami or endure a much tougher task than winning the two do-or-die games they took from the Cleveland Cavaliers to advance to this series. They'll need three straight victories with no room for error against Shaq, Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
How tough is three straight? The Pistons haven't won three straight in a series since last year's conference semis versus Indiana. Since then, Monday's game will be the 30th playoff game the Pistons have played without beating a team three times in a row.
''It's a huge game," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "It's the biggest game of the series, pretty much, Monday's game. I know they know that and we know that. We have to come in and play with a sense of urgency early in the game, and hopefully it carries through the game. We're down 2-1 right now, and we have to go home tied up."
It's well documented that the Pistons play their best basketball with their backs against the wall.
After being down 3-1 to Orlando in a first-round series in 2003, the Pistons came back and won. In 2004, the Pistons were down to New Jersey 3-2 in the second round before coming back to win the series. Detroit won a Game 7 on the road at Miami in the Eastern Conference finals last year. And that's just a partial list of their near-death experiences.
So expect Detroit to play its best basketball in Game 4, just as it did with the pressure on in Game 2.
But win three straight against Miami? Win three against a thirsty franchise with a chip on its shoulder from losing in the East finals to ya'll last year? Win three straight against a team with O'Neal and Wade peaking? Win three straight against a focused team with two future Hall of Famers long dreaming of an NBA title in Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning?
That challenge rivals knocking off the San Antonio Spurs in Games 6 and 7 in San Antonio during the NBA Finals last year. And the Pistons, as great as they are with their backs against the wall, came up short there in Game 7.
''Monday is going to be huge," Heat forward Antoine Walker said. ''We have to take it as a Game 7-type of game. We've got a golden opportunity to go up 3-1 and really put them behind the 8-ball."
For the Heat to get Game 4, they need another big performance by O'Neal and Wade, who combined for 62 points on 24-of-32 shooting in Game 3. A year ago, O'Neal and Wade were plagued by injuries and still were just minutes away from making it to the NBA Finals. Now, O'Neal and Wade are healthy and appear, for the moment, unstoppable.
"They had an unbelievable game tonight," Billups said. "Those are their two horses. That's who they're going to depend on to win the games, and today they came out and they were dominant. We have to take a look at probably what they're doing because if they play that way the rest of the series, there's going to be some long nights for us."
It's come to this Monday for the Heat. Game 4. The biggest game in Heat history since arriving on the NBA scene in 1988. It's that simple.
"We're going to be ready," O'Neal said.
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AP Photo/J.Pat Carter
Frustrations all around for Big Ben. He has a brutal night (see Box 7) while Shaq shines. And he's two Pistons losses from going into free agency with questions about how much he has left at age 31.
Day 15, and still no end in sight for the Pistons' offensive funk.
After ranking third in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency in the regular season and scoring at least 97 points in their first six playoff games, the Pistons have topped 86 only once in eight games since. Saturday's 98-83 loss to Miami in Game 3 was more of the same, with Detroit producing only three double-figure scorers while falling behind in the series 2-1.
Unfortunately for the Pistons, this trend shows no sign of abating. Starting with their 86-77 loss to Cleveland on May 13, Detroit has shot 40.8 percent from the field, 31.0 percent on 3-pointer and 69.4 percent from the line -- all well below the team's regular-season marks.
The malaise has been more baffling because the Pistons' normal weakness, an inability to get to the line, hasn't been a problem. Because of their guard-oriented offense, the Pistons averaged only .297 free throws per field-goal attempt this season, well below the league average of .333. But in this eight-game stretch, the Pistons have made a steady march to the charity stripe, upping the rate to .362. While free throws have been up in the playoffs as a whole, Detroit's increase has been far greater than that of most other teams.
Unfortunately, when the Pistons aren't getting the whistles, their shots just won't drop.
Especially notable has been their inability to convert field goals near the basket, and Game 3 was a perfect example. With Miami's tactic of fronting post players driving the Pistons to distraction, and Ben Wallace repeatedly passing up chances near the rim, Detroit took only 19 shots from 10 feet or closer. Worse yet, they made only six.
Thus, the story for Detroit in Game 4 will be whether they can find a way to get more opportunities near the rim and convert a higher percentage of them. Hubie Brown pointed out one obvious solution on ESPN -- the Pistons have to make better entry passes to Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess in the post.
But it will take more than that for the Pistons to regain their regular-season stride. Ben Wallace needs to be more willing to pull the trigger near the basket -- and to make a foul shot occasionally. Flip Saunders needs to give Chauncey Billups more chances to use his size to overwhelm Jason Williams on the blocks. And Tayshaun Prince needs to regain the bounce in his step after a tired-looking three-point, four-turnover night in Game 3.
Detroit has played phenomenally well with its backs against the wall the past three years, including pulling out two elimination games against the Cavs last week. But even in the must-win games against Cleveland, the offense didn't wake up -- it was the defense that rose to the occasion.
Facing a must-win road game against an opponent that's peaking at the right time, that won't be good enough in Game 4. If Detroit's offensive slump doesn't end in the next 48 hours, its season is as good as over.
-- John Hollinger
Ken (Detroit): Why don't you put your money where your mouth is? Detroit will win and prove the so-called experts wrong again. We've been right the last two years when everybody else said the Pistons will lose, It's funny I should be the expert.
Chris Sheridan: Hey ya big expert, did they win Game 7 against the Spurs? Huh?
Ben (Detroit): I heard that Ben Wallace signed Arn Tellem as an agent, after firing his agent and deciding to get his contract done with a lawyer. What does this mean for Ben and his future with the Pistons? Is it conceivable he will bolt this summer?
Chris Sheridan: Yes, he did it a little over a week ago, and I'm taking it as a sign he wants to have someone who knows what he's doing write in as many bonus clauses as possible.
But it could also mean that Ben wants the write guy pulling the strings if he needs to make a leverage move to get the Pistons to pay him what he thinks he's worth.
He'd have to make $12,000,001 to make more than Sheed next season, and I don't know that the Pistons want to go that far north with their offer. But if Ben flirts with the Raptors or Bulls, Detroit might have to go there to keep him. Arn could do that flirting for him if need be.
The tandem of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal lived up to their billing in Game 3, combining to subdue the Pistons 98-83.
Heat too much for Pistons
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Call it Hack-A-Shaq, Hug-A-Shaq or just plain U-G-L-Y. Whatever it was, it didn't work on Saturday as O'Neal made half his FTs. In one comical sequence, he missed two, got his own rebound, shot and missed, got fouled, made both, and then got excited and gave both points back by whacking Rip Hamilton.
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
Did you know? The two best FT-shooting teams are still alive in the playoffs ... and so are the two worst FT-shooting teams.
Everyone who plays Fantasy Basketball knows Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace are fool's gold, despite their production, because of their free-throw shooting -- they bring down your FT stats and kill your team.
While their flaw hasn't been fatal in the playoffs, they have provided some of the most unsightly terms in the NBA vocabulary -- Hack-a-Shaq and its little brother, Bash-a-Ben (a.k.a. loss of possession for the Pistons).
Their poor shooting seems to have dragged their teams down to their level -- of the 16 playoff teams, the Pistons are 15th in FT percentage (72.2 percent), and the Heat are dead last (70.5). But with so-so competition in the East, the Pistons (barely) and the Heat have survived this Achilles' heel so far.
It might be their undoing in the NBA Finals, though, where either Detroit or Miami will face a great free-throw shooting team: Phoenix leads all playoff teams (84.0 percent), and Dallas is second (82.1).
-- Royce Webb
An excerpt from the Scouts Inc. breakdown and preview of Game 3 in the West finals:
This may be the biggest key to the series for the Mavs.
They improved this important phase of defense in Game 2 by allowing the Suns 21 fast-break points, down from their 32 in Game 1.
The Mavs have decided to send only one or two players to the glass on a missed shot and sprint the other three back to protect their basket.
They need to improve one big aspect of their transition defense.
Their natural instinct is to sprint back to the paint, but the Mavs have been vulnerable to the trailer at the 3-point line.
They must sprint, communicate better and find all five Suns players, especially Tim Thomas trailing at the 3-point line.
Pick-and-roll defense will continue to be a challenge for the Mavs all series. Even though they switched the pick-and-rolls, they are attempting to support the mismatches better by bringing more help to the ball.
Avery Johnson used DeSagana Diop in Game 2 and he provided a nice lift for the Mavs. His presence in the paint denied the Suns ability to get to the rim as easily as in Game 1.
Maybe the Detroit Pistons had a good reason to lose Game 3 on Saturday.
Maybe they lost because they're superstitious.
We know what kind of success the Pistons have had in the playoffs in recent years. But they are now 1-6 in their last seven Game 3s.
The only Game 3 victory in their last seven?
That came in the 2005 NBA Finals, which happens to be the only series the Pistons have lost in the playoffs since 2003.
-- Royce Webb