The Miami Heat got their miracle Monday night, and it still wasn't enough to beat the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami got an improbably great game from the ailing Shaquille O'Neal and an impossibly courageous one from the badly injured Dwyane Wade, and the Detroit Pistons left the door open by going through a terrible stretch in the fourth quarter.
Almost all of the things that had to happen for the Heat to win happened -- almost all of them -- and they still lost. The Pistons won a hell of a game, a Game 7 that lived up to the billing. They made the plays down the stretch and won, 88-82.
That's what they do.
"That's what we do," said Pistons guard Richard Hamilton. They make the plays. They'll play the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals starting Thursday night in Texas.
O'Neal, slowed throughout the playoffs by a deep thigh bruise, scored 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Wade, who suffered a painful muscle pull in his rib cage in Game 5 and missed Game 6, had 20 points and four assists.
Wade looked tentative and slow for much of the game, but carried the Heat with a brilliant stretch in the third quarter. He made five straight shots and a pair of free throws and assisted O'Neal on a dunk as the Heat rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to tie the game and nudge into a two-point lead.
The Pistons had tied the game 66-66 on a Hamilton baseline jumper a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter, then fallen behind by a bucket when Keyon Dooling hit a little runner in the lane. That's when the Pistons went through one of their crazy offensive stretches and invited the Heat to take the game and the series.
With a Finals berth on the line and offensive weapons Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince on the floor, Detroit decided it would be a good idea to have various defensive specialists and role players hoist up shots. Lindsey Hunter launched a 3-pointer. Miami rebounded and took a 70-66 lead on Dooling's crazy bank shot.
After Wallace brought Detroit to within two with a jumper, Dooling missed a three and the Pistons came downcourt with a chance to tie. Antonio McDyess launched a shot from the top of the key that rimmed out. A few moments later, having turned the ball over on an offensive foul by McDyess on their next possession, the Pistons were down 73-68.
Now Chauncey Billups, yet another offensive weapon, had replaced Hunter. So the Pistons looked to ... McDyess again. He forced a tough shot in the lane and missed. Miami turned it over and the Pistons, still down by five, looked to ... Ben Wallace. He drove the lane with the shot clock winding down and had his awkward prayer of a shot blocked by O'Neal.
The Pistons were coming apart, even with the Heat inexplicably running their offense through Keyon Dooling.
And it didn't stop there. On Miami's next possession, Rasheed Wallace committed his fifth foul. Udonis Haslem made one of two free throws to give the Heat a 74-68 lead, and Wallace was replaced by Elden Campbell.
Guess who took the next shot for Detroit. Campbell missed.
It was an astonishing display of late-game lousiness by a Pistons team that is known for, well, making plays.
They finally did make some plays. They got the ball to an actual offensive player, Prince, who stopped the bleeding and started a game-tying 6-0 run by hitting a shot from the baseline. Billups' 3-pointer tied it up.
The Heat made the game's crucial mistake with a little over two minutes to go. Leading 78-76 and with O'Neal on a hot streak, Damon Jones took a kick-out pass from O'Neal on the left block, drove toward him, jumped in the air -- and realized he was lost.
Caught in the air, he threw the ball into a crowd under the basket, hoping for the best. Prince tipped it to Rasheed Wallace, who started a fast break, Billups to Hamilton. Tie game.
Rasheed Wallace hit a pair of free throws and a tip-in to give Detroit an 82-79 lead, and that's when the Pistons made the biggest play of the game, which is what they do.
Wade, ineffective throughout the fourth quarter, had the ball as the clock ticked under 50 seconds. He spun into the lane, trying to split a double-team of Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. Hamilton grabbed the ball. Jump ball. Hamilton won the tip, and while the Pistons failed to score, the Heat didn't get the ball back until about 20 seconds were left.
The endgame was a matter of Billups and Prince hitting free throws to preserve the lead.
We'll never know what might have happened in this series had O'Neal and Wade been healthy for all of it, though that's how it works in the playoffs. Injuries are a part of the game and you can't complain about them.
We do know that the Heat would have had their miracle victory if they'd gotten the last thing they needed, something they got in their Game 5 win, a good game from someone other than O'Neal and Wade. While those two scored 47 points, the whole rest of the team scored 35 on 13-of-30 shooting.
Not enough, but it was quite a show watching Shaq and Wade almost deliver a game the Heat had no business winning.
The Pistons will face the rested Spurs, who will have had seven days off between dispatching the Phoenix Suns last Wednesday and the start of the Finals Thursday. Detroit will have to play better in that series than it played in this one. Given an opportunity to walk off with the game like the Heat had Monday in the fourth quarter, the Spurs won't say no.
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TNT signs off poorly [PERMALINK]
The Finals will be on ABC, which means that TNT is finished with the NBA for the season. The cable network has distinguished itself as by far the best of the three networks that carry the league, but there must be something about June that gets to the TV people, because on Monday night TNT looked like just another Disney network.
On several occasions, TNT's cameras focused on something other than the game, ABC style, for far longer than even ABC usually does, which is long, forcing viewers to wonder what was happening on the hardwood.
At one point, we viewers gazed at Pistons president Joe Dumars for what seemed like an eternity. We could see the 24-second clock ticking down to 16 -- fully one-third of the possession, gone -- as Dumars stoically watched the action. TNT cut to the play just in time to catch a foul, though there was no time to understand what was happening before the whistle blew.
We also missed an important offensive foul by Wade because we were staring at Heat coach Stan Van Gundy for no particular reason, and there was at least one other play where the shot clock got down to 16 without the audience having any idea what was happening because we were watching Pistons fans cheering a video broadcast of the game in Detroit's home arena.
TNT signaled that it would be offering up an evening of television suckitude by treating us to a view of the first possession of the game from the cheap seats, an ABC/ESPN trademark.
I like to think TNT was acting like a summer boyfriend who knows he has to break up with his girl so he starts acting like a jerk. That way she won't miss him so much. It's for her benefit, see?
"You go on home to that broadcast network of yours," TNT was saying to us. "I'm no good for you, baby. It would never work out. Go on."
Previous column: Heat need a miracle
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