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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Diesel Powered: Shaquille O'Neal Fuels Miami's First Trip to the NBA Finals

Dwyane Wade had the flu, but Shaquille O'Neal made the Detroit Pistons feel sick. O'Neal shot 12-14 from the field and had 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots to lead the Miami Heat to a 95-78 win over the Detroit Pistons in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat will now make the franchise's first appearance in the NBA Finals. Rip Hamilton led Detroit with 33 points but shot only 12-28 from the field. The other Pistons starters combined to shoot 12-40 from the field.

Wade spent most of Saturday getting treatment for a stomach virus and he got off to a slow start in the first quarter, shooting 0-2 from the field and picking up two fouls, although he did have three assists--two of them lob passes to O'Neal for dunks. O'Neal shot 4-5 from the field in the first quarter and the Heat players other than O'Neal and Wade combined to shoot 7-9, including a 4-4 performance by Jason Williams. Yet Miami only led 25-20 at the end of the quarter, mainly because the Heat committed five turnovers and the Pistons did not have any. Wade's first field goal came early in the second quarter and gave Miami a 28-21 lead. Williams' pull up fast break jump shot extended the margin to 38-27 at the 4:11 mark and Miami maintained that distance the rest of the half, leading 47-36 at the break. O'Neal had 19 points on 9-11 field goal shooting, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the first half. The Pistons made only 11 field goals in the first half. Flip Saunders' "liberation offense" that Pistons players raved about all season looked like it had been locked up in a maximum security prison.

After halftime, it has become customary for sideline reporters to talk to a member of each team's coaching staff. Rarely do any earth shattering revelations come out of these conversations but Jim Gray's recapitulation of what Saunders told him was quite interesting. Gray said that Saunders told him that Detroit had just played its worst half of the playoffs and that he didn't know what to do. Give Saunders credit for being honest, but if he's telling Jim Gray that he doesn't know what to do what did he tell his players? Whatever it was, it didn't help, because Miami outscored Detroit 25-17 in the third quarter. Wade stayed in the locker room during the early part of the quarter to get some more treatment but when he returned he brought his shooting touch with him, making 5 of 6 shots and scoring 10 points.

Hamilton scored 12 quick points in the fourth quarter but Detroit never mounted a serious charge because the Pistons--whose postseason media guide last year was titled "The Defenders"--simply could not get a stop. Miami shot .557 from the field for the game. The Pistons had no answer for O'Neal, made Williams look like an All-Star and did nothing special against Wade after he got his legs under him. Wade finished with 14 points, 10 assists and four rebounds, content to pick apart Detroit's porous defense with his passing. Williams made his first 10 shots from the field and finished 10-12 with 21 points and six assists.

The playoffs have been quite a turnaround story for the Heat. As ESPN's Hubie Brown pointed out, during the regular season Miami had a losing record against plus-.500 teams and went 2-12 against division winners. The Heat looked less than dominant in the first round against Chicago but since then they have gone 8-3 against New Jersey and Detroit, the Eastern Conference's other two division champions--talk about peaking at the right time.

The Detroit Pistons are also quite a turnaround story--but in a bad way. Detroit won a franchise record 64 games and earned home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Pistons felt that if game seven of last year's Finals versus San Antonio had been a home game that they would have defended their title. Game seven against Miami would have been in Detroit but the Pistons failed to make it that far. Only one other team in NBA history, the 68-14 1972-73 Boston Celtics, won more regular season games without capturing the championship; the Celtics lost a tough series to a great New York Knicks team after John Havlicek injured his shoulder. How much blame does Saunders deserve for this? He is the only major change to the core group that made it to two straight NBA Finals and won one championship. The players did not always look energized or focused--but that is part of his job. The great coaches come up with game plans and motivational gimmicks that ensure that the team is concentrating on the task at hand. Saunders is to be commended for how well he responded to the pressure in the regular season but this was not a good playoff run for a veteran team like Detroit. The Pistons' trademark defense was absent for long stretches and the offense misfired like an old jalopy. Joe Dumars handed Saunders the keys to a sleek, championship winning race car and Saunders led most of the laps of the race only to crash with the finish line in sight.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 AM

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