- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Larry Brown’s uncertain future was not a distraction to the Detroit Pistons. On the contrary, it was barely in their thoughts.

Detroit ensured that the Eastern Conference finals will last at least six games, getting a big performance from Richard Hamilton on both ends of the court to defeat the Miami Heat 106-96 last night in Game 4 of their best-of-seven series.

Bouncing back strongly from a 2-1 deficit just as they did in the second round against Indiana, the Pistons took the lead for good after Shaquille O’Neal got into foul trouble midway through the first quarter and knotted the series 2-2 heading into Game 5 tomorrow night in Miami.

Game 6 will be Saturday on Detroit’s court in what could be Brown’s last home game as coach of the Pistons.

The 64-year-old Brown has met with the Cleveland Cavaliers about becoming their president of basketball operations, though he continued to insist yesterday that he would like to continue coaching if his health allows it.

“We’ve got bigger things. We’re worried about the Miami Heat, not what the coach is doing or whatever,” Detroit guard Chauncey Billups said. “We don’t care about that now, we’re trying to win the series, trying to defend our championship, not worry about what’s going on after the season.”

The performance was the Pistons’ most dominant of the series after they lost Games 2 and 3.

Detroit did not have a single turnover in the first half, never let Dwyane Wade get into a scoring groove — thanks in large part to Hamilton’s defens — and was never seriously challenged in the fourth quarter.

“We’re in much better shape than we were after the other night. We all felt this would be a great series, and hopefully that’s the case,” Brown said. “We have to find a way to win one game on the road and take care of our own court.”

Hamilton scored 28 points, Rasheed Wallace added 20, Billups had 17 and the Pistons finished with six turnovers. The lopsided result even allowed little-used forward Darko Milicic to see his first playing time of the series — the final 93 seconds.

“For the night, their four main guys that they look to offensively, we didn’t do a good job on any of them,” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Just a great, great game by them. A very complete effort on their part.”

O’Neal, limited by foul trouble to 8 minutes in the first half, had 12 points and five rebounds. Wade had 28 points on 10-for-22 shooting as Brown made a switch and used Hamilton instead of Tayshaun Prince as the primary defender on the Heat’s second-year guard.

“I got every shot I wanted. I hit some and I missed some, so it wasn’t a big thing to me at all,” Wade said.

Detroit also handed Miami its first road loss of the postseason. The Heat had been 5-0 against New Jersey, Washington and the Pistons.

O’Neal picked up his second foul just 6:14 into the first quarter with the score 11-11, and the Heat were behind 32-25 when he returned 2[1/2] minutes into the second quarter.

O’Neal’s third foul came just over 2 minutes later when he was called for bumping Hamilton on a drive. O’Neal protested that he had his arms straight up, then frowned at the referee who made the call, Jack Nies, as he exited for the rest of the half.

Miami had a 13-3 run to pull to 46-42, but things went bad for the Heat after O’Neal’s backup, Alonzo Mourning, drew his third foul with 3:30 left. Hamilton scored six points and Billups had four as Detroit closed the half with a 14-4 run for a 60-46 lead.

Wade had just 10 points at the half as Hamilton did a superb job keeping him out of his rhythm.

“We just wanted to change up,” Brown said. “The kid’s a great, great player. You can’t always give them the same look.”

O’Neal’s fourth foul came with 3:05 left in the third quarter after Miami had pulled to 70-65, and the Heat entered the fourth quarter trailing 79-69. A 3-pointer by Damon Jones pulled the Heat to 84-75 with 7:51 left, but Prince hit a short jump-hook to start a 9-1 run that made it 93-76.

“We’re obviously a better team with him in the game, but we can’t worry about ‘What if the big fella didn’t get in foul trouble,’ and stuff like that,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “We didn’t play team defense.”

Earlier yesterday, Brown was unusually defensive and testy in reacting to a report on ESPN.com that he already had agreed to become president of the Cavaliers.

The players have regarded the rumors surrounding Brown as more of an annoyance than a distraction, though it is clear they aren’t too happy with the timing of the revelations about Brown possibly leaving for Cleveland.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Prince said. “The stakes are higher now, but we dealt with this during the season with New York and those rumors. The only difference now is that we’re in the Eastern Conference finals. We’re a mature team and we know how to handle it.”

Notes — O’Neal did not speak to reporters after the game. The 1999-2000 Los Angeles Lakers were the only team in NBA history to go unbeaten on the road in the postseason (8-0). Detroit avoided falling behind 3-1, a deficit only seven of 159 teams have recovered from in postseason history.

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