IN THE SUMMER of 2005 the Miami Heat made the decision to overhaul its roster with one specific goal in mind: finding a way to defeat the Detroit Pistons. After the team fell to Detroit in seven games in that season's conference finals, Heat president Pat Riley completed a makeover of the Miami roster when he engineered the largest trade in NBA history: a five-team, 13-player deal that brought veterans Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey to South Beach. "This had to be done," said Riley. "We moved toward a goal of achieving what it is we want [and] putting together a core that is going to be together for a while."
While the move was lauded by many as a bold one, it did not pay immediate dividends. Walker and Williams clashed from the start, and with Shaquille O'Neal missing 18 of the first 20 games of the regular season with a sprained ankle, the Heat struggled to find team chemistry. That element was further degraded when coach Stan Van Gundy resigned last December to spend more time with his family, with the result that Riley--the Heat coach for eight previous seasons--returned to the bench. "The team is a mess," said Riley. "This team is going to have to make a decision whether they want to be a part of greatness."
Miami rallied around Riley, finishing the regular season with 52 wins and earning the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Yet during the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Heat had shown its mortality, losing two games to Chicago and dropping the first game at home to New Jersey in the conference semifinals. Now they were set to go face-to-face with Detroit, the team that had ousted them from the top spot in the regular season and boasted a lineup that featured three members of the All-Defensive team and a fourth ( Rasheed Wallace) who missed the roster by one vote. Despite sneaking by a young Cleveland team in seven games, entering this series Detroit remained the same supremely confident bunch that had won back-to-back conference titles. "I know some people say it's arrogant, but it's just the way we feel," said Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter. "Until we are proven wrong, what can we say?"
In Game 1 Miami gave Hunter his answer. With Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade battling foul trouble most of the game, it was Miami's new acquisitions who delivered. Walker, Williams and Gary Payton combined to score 41 points as the Heat stunned the Pistons 91-86 and stole away home court advantage. "Their supporting cast was good," said Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups. "They made the difference in the game."
Going into the conference finals much was made of the fact that Miami had avoided the nightmare of defending LeBron James. But in Game 2 Detroit let it be known that it had a pretty good small forward of its own. After being held to 16 points in Game 1, Tayshaun Prince responded with a career playoff high 24 points to go with 11 rebounds. The Pistons' human Swiss Army knife also contributed defensively, helping to hold the trio of Walker, Williams and Payton to just 25 points. With the onus squarely on O'Neal and Wade, the Pistons' swarming defense locked in on Miami's All-Star guard, sealing him out of the paint and forcing him to commit a franchise-record-tying nine turnovers. Despite a frantic Heat rally in the closing minutes, Detroit held on to even the series with a 92-88 win. "You know those guys are going to keep playing until the very end," warned Ben Wallace. "We know we're in a dogfight."
With the series shifting to South Florida, the attention turned to O'Neal, South Beach's biggest attraction. The 2005-06 season had not been kind to O'Neal, who battled injuries and finished the year with the lowest scoring average (20.0) of his 14-year career. Yes, he'd been effective in the first two rounds, but beating up on the likes of Tyson Chandler and Jason Collins is like dominating the jayvee. The Pistons, with four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace manning the pivot, were the varsity. In Game 3 Miami decided it was time to see what O'Neal had left in the tank. Posting up early and often, O'Neal displayed an array of power and finesse moves, finishing with 27 points and 12 rebounds while subverting Detroit's Hack-a- Shaq strategy by hitting two clutch free throws down the stretch. Led by O'Neal and Wade, who poured in 35 points of his own, Miami routed Detroit to seize a 2-1 series lead. "We took it upon ourselves to be leaders," said Wade, "and leaders find a way to help their team win."
Miami didn't take its foot off the accelerator in Game 4, continuing to run over the Pistons with a steady diet of Wade and O'Neal. The 24-year old Wade cemented his status as the game's most fearless player, scoring 31 points and leading a Heat offense that attacked the rim relentlessly, finishing the game shooting 54.9% (the third time in the series it shot better than 50%) and holding a 47-22 advantage at the free throw line. O'Neal added 21 points as Miami pounded Detroit for the second straight game, winning 89-78 to take a 3-1 series lead.
Back in Detroit, it appeared as though the Pistons' once well-oiled machine was starting to become unhinged. After two years of (relative) harmony under Larry Brown that had produced one championship and very nearly another, many Pistons were beginning to question the decisions of his replacement, Flip Saunders, while displaying signs that they were ready to pack it in for the summer. Ben Wallace was the most vocal Saunders basher, openly criticizing his coach for what he felt was a lack of focus on defense in practice.
With their season on life support, the Pistons once again turned to Prince, their unlikely hero, who, despite not having the All-Star credentials of his fellow starters, had been Detroit's most consistent threat in the series. Prince punished Miami from the perimeter, bettering his Game 2 performance to score a new playoff career high 29 points and helping shut down Wade for the first time in the series. With Prince and Richard Hamilton hounding him all night, Wade was held to 23 points; O'Neal finished the night with 19. "Give them credit," said Wade. "They played hard, like a desperate team."
If Game 6 felt like a case of d�j� vu for Miami, well, you could hardly blame the team. Last season the Heat led the Pistons 3-2 before an injury to Wade cost it the final two games of the series. This year it held that same 3-2 advantage heading back to Miami and despite the Game 5 loss still appeared to be in control. That was, of course, until Wade checked himself into the hospital. After feeling ill during the latter stages of Game 5, Wade drove to a Coral Gables hospital on the morning of Game 6 and remained there tethered to an IV until just hours before tip-off. His body rebelling, Wade began Game 6 shooting 1 for 5 with three turnovers while looking visibly woozy. The Pistons, however, could not take advantage and were once again victimized by a rejuvenated O'Neal. With Wade struggling, Shaq carried Miami in the first half, pushing the Heat lead up to 12 by the time Wade returned to the floor three minutes into the third quarter. Superman had his sidekick back, and Wade was up to the task, showcasing the full repertoire of moves that prompted Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas to call Wade "the most Jordan-like player in the league today." By the end of the quarter Wade had scored 10 points in nine minutes and Miami had finally chased its demons, eliminating Detroit and advancing to the first NBA Finals in franchise history.