Going, going …

Little did the editors at People Magazine have any idea they were putting an assassin on their annual list of the “50 Most Beautiful People,” but that’s exactly what Dwyane Wade has become in the postseason.

With superstar Miami Heat teammate Shaquille O’Neal sitting out last night’s Game 3 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series with a bruised right thigh, Wade brought the Washington Wizards near dismissal from the playoffs with a brilliant, 31-point effort in a 102-95 victory before 20,173 deflated spectators at MCI Center.

The Wizards became just the 10th team to overcome an 0-2 deficit when they battled back to beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round. But now they are faced with a far more daunting task, looking up from an 0-3 deficit that no NBA team has ever climbed out of.

And considering that the Heat have now beaten the Wizards 11 straight times, there is little reason to believe tomorrow’s Game 4 will be any different.

“We have had a terrific season thus far, and it would be great to symbolize the season with not allowing them to close us out at home,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “That would be a tremendous achievement for us to stand and hold our ground with a lot of pride and a lot of effort and a lot of conviction that they will not close us out at home.”

But, said reserve guard Juan Dixon, “sometimes in the NBA there are teams that have your number, and right now it looks like Miami has our number.” Dixon had all 16 of the Wizards’ bench points.

For the third game in a row, the Heat made better than 50 percent of their shots (40-for-73) against the Wizards.

Even with O’Neal’s 7-1, 325-pound frame anchored to the bench, the Heat manhandled the Wizards down low, finishing with a lopsided 43-29 rebounding advantage.

But in the end, this was about Wade, who also had nine rebounds and six assists against the Wizards. And when the stakes rose, as they did in the second half, Wade was even better, connecting on nine of 15 shots.

“I think that we are getting better and better with each game we play,” Wade said after leading Heat to a 7-0 record in the playoffs. “We all knew we had to pick up our games with Shaq out. That was just understood. We did it tonight, and now I’m starting to feel that we are just going to get better and better as the playoffs go on. Maybe the sky is the limit.”

Wade, who made 14 of 27 shots, delivered his most lethal blow to the Wizards with just over one minute remaining when he began a drive from out beyond the 3-point line and whirled and twisted his way to the basket for an incredible off-balance layup over Brendan Haywood (15 points, eight rebounds) to give the Heat their final margin with just under a minute remaining

The Wizards, who relied too heavily on jumpers, did not score again.

“If we come out and fight, it shows that we’re fighters,” Washington’s Gilbert Arenas, who finished with 20 points and a franchise playoff-record high 14 assists, said of his team’s chances in Game 4. “But if we come out and lay a dud, it will mean that when it got tough we buckled.”

Buckling is just what the Wizards did in the third quarter. Leading 60-52 following an Arenas layup, the Heat proceeded to outscore them 27-10 the rest of the quarter to lead 79-70.

Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 21 points, and Larry Hughes finished with 19. Jordan used just seven players.

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