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Out of Their Depth
Ian Thomsen
June 05, 2006
Miami has pushed Detroit to the edge in the East by beating the Pistons at their own game
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June 05, 2006

Out Of Their Depth

Miami has pushed Detroit to the edge in the East by beating the Pistons at their own game

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CAN TWO beat five? That was the damning question that, entering the Eastern Conference finals, appeared to favor the Detroit Pistons--the epitome of balanced, five-man basketball--over the Miami Heat, whose roster, despite the presence of once and future MVPs Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, resembled for much of the season a chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong. "We were all out of sync early in the year," says Heat power forward Udonis Haslem. "Everybody was trying to get a feel for each other."

And yet the predictable showdown between the East's two best teams produced a most unpredictable role reversal: Suddenly the Pistons appeared out of sync, while the Heat grabbed a 3-1 lead thanks to the type of unselfish play that Detroit used to take for granted. "They're seeing a different team," says forward Antoine Walker, a former franchise player with the Boston Celtics who finally appeared to be settling into a productive secondary role supporting Shaq and Wade.

The Pistons knew they were in trouble during their 98-83 Game 3 loss when Walker--whose quick trigger from beyond the arc has been criticized all season--repeatedly up-faked from behind the three-point line and drove past Tayshaun Prince into the paint, where he scored eight of his 11 points. There's a reason Wade and Shaq were able to combine for 62 points on just 32 field goal attempts: the defensive attention suddenly demanded by Walker, Haslem and point guard Jason Williams, who spread the floor and knocked down open shots. (The trio shot a combined 52%.) "The way [teams] load up defensively," Miami coach Pat Riley says of the focus on Shaq and Wade, "we need other players when the ball goes away from them."

That's why Riley called out Haslem after his 1-for-12, zero-offensive-board disaster in the first two games of the series. "He needs to step up big time in the effort area," Riley said after Game 2, a 92-88 Detroit victory. Haslem responded with 26 points (on 55% shooting) and 12 rebounds over the next two games, though he admitted after Game 3 that he was still adapting to the drastic changes forced by Riley's preseason acquisitions of Walker, Williams, Gary Payton and James Posey, each of whom, with the exception of Posey, had been accustomed to being a focal point of their team's offense. "I got confused about what they wanted from me offensively," Haslem says. "I thought when Shaq got the ball that I [should] spread the floor to keep Rasheed [ Wallace] out of his way. In the process I took myself out of rebounding position."

Miami's new cohesiveness increases the heat on the Pistons, who, for all the talk about their upgraded offense, haven't generated good looks late in close games during these playoffs. In the past (read: during the defense-first regime of Larry Brown) the Pistons' D was able to produce easy baskets. "We ain't winning no championships trying to outscore everybody," says Ben Wallace. In Game 3 Detroit's backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton combined for 51 points, but the starting frontcourt shot a combined 5 for 19. As predicted the series has been a two-on-five contest ... with the Heat benefiting from not only the two leading men but the three best supporting actors as well.

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