- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

MIAMI -The pressure of Game 7 didn’t faze the defending champions.

In a deciding game that stayed close the entire 48 minutes, the Detroit Pistons summoned their experience and played with calmness and poise down the stretch to defeat the Miami Heat 88-82 last night in the final game of the Eastern Conference finals.

Now, it’s back to the NBA Finals for the team often dismissed as a fluke champion — a disparaging label if there ever was one but one the Pistons can shake with four wins against the San Antonio Spurs.

Dwyane Wade played for Miami after missing Game 6 because of a rib muscle injury, but his explosiveness left him for all but a few brief stretches. He finished with 20 points but didn’t score in the final 15 minutes.

Richard Hamilton scored 22 points, Rasheed Wallace added 20 - including two foul shots that put Detroit ahead for good with 1:26 remaining — and the Pistons closed the game with a 10-3 run to hand Miami yet another Game 7 loss on its home floor.

Detroit won for the 10th straight time when it needed one victory to clinch a series, the second longest streak behind the Lakers’ record 12-game run that ended in 2004.

The Pistons also became the first Eastern Conference team in 23 years to win a Game 7 on the road. They open the finals Thursday night at San Antonio.

Shaquille O’Neal led Miami with 27 points, but the Heat faltered offensively in the final two minutes - with Wade the biggest culprit when he forced up a 20-footer that missed badly with 1:13 left.

Wallace followed with a putback of Tayshaun Prince’s miss to make it 82-79, and Detroit went 6-for-6 from the foul line the rest of the way.

Wade scored 12 points in the third quarter, but he was wincing in pain in the game’s final minutes. His basket with 3:10 left in the third quarter was his last of the night.

Detroit’s victory extended Larry Brown’s coaching career for at least four more games, pitting him against his good friend, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and another dominant big man, Tim Duncan, in the finals. The Pistons and Spurs split their season series 1-1.

“I’m thrilled. It’s like a dream come true. Coming from where I come from, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and now to get the opportunity to play for my second championship at 27, it’s a great feeling,” said Hamilton, who has scored 20 or more points in 16 of the Pistons’ 17 postseason games.

Brown was elated as the final seconds ticked down, racing up the sideline to embrace Wallace near midcourt and then sprinting back to his bench to whoop it up a little more.

The sentimental pangs that Brown was experiencing before Game 6 were diminished this time.

“Not so much as the last game,” Brown said. “I was home. My family was around. Now, I’m just excited about the opportunity because these don’t come around very much.”

Brown has been with the Pistons for only two seasons, one of the shortest stints of his nomadic coaching career - but easily the most successful.

“It’s turned out way beyond my wildest dreams,” Brown said.

Brown will visit the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., soon after Detroit’s season ends to address a medical problem that developed after complications from hip surgery. If surgeons are not able to correct it, Brown plans to retire from coaching. Speculation has been rampant that if he leaves Detroit, Brown may join the Cleveland Cavaliers’ front office.

Detroit got 18 points from Chauncey Billups and 13 from Prince, proving again that a team-wide effort often can be more than enough to defeat a team with two superstars. That’s what the Pistons did against O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals last year, and that’s what they did against O’Neal and Wade, too.

“That’s what we do!” Hamilton yelled in a jubilant Detroit locker room.

“There’s so much work ahead of us,” Detroit center Elden Campbell said. “It’s a relief to get past them. It was a tough series.”

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