- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

MIAMI — The 12-point lead Miami held minutes earlier was whittled to a single point, and Antonio McDyess rose for a dunk that would have given the Detroit Pistons the lead and all the momentum.

Dwyane Wade chose that moment to take over.

“Guys look at me and say, ‘It’s your time,’” Wade said. “That’s all you need.”

He blocked McDyess’ dunk try, then had a three-point play eight seconds later to end a huge Detroit run. The Heat went on to beat the Pistons 98-83 last night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“Play of the game,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.

Heck, it might have been the biggest play of Miami’s season.

Wade scored 35 points, Shaquille O’Neal added 27 points and 12 rebounds, and they combined to shoot 24-for-32 from the floor for the Heat, who find themselves in the same situation they were in a year ago — up 2-1 over the Pistons in the East finals, two wins from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

“We took it upon ourselves, once again, to be the leaders of the team and help this team get a win,” Wade said.

The Pistons thwarted those plans last year, rallying to win in seven games. If they have visions on doing that again, they’ll have to find a way to slow Wade and O’Neal — because Miami’s superstar duo scored nearly at will in Game 3.

“That’s why they’re here,” Heat coach Pat Riley said.

Chauncey Billups scored 11 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter for Detroit. Richard Hamilton added 20 points before fouling out and Rasheed Wallace had 11, but Tayshaun Prince — who averaged 20 points in the first two games of the series — had only three.

The Pistons shot only 42 percent from the floor, while Miami shot 58 percent. Plus, the Heat held huge edges in rebounding (40-27) and points in the paint (50-16).

“What it’s come down every game is whoever is most aggressive from start to finish has come away with a victory,” Billups said. “That’s one thing that we’ve got to keep in mind.”

Of the last 32 series that were tied at a game apiece, Game 3 winners have prevailed 24 times.

But Detroit has recovered from 2-1 deficits three times since 2003 — including last year, a result that neither the Heat nor the Pistons have forgotten. Game 4 is tomorrow night in Miami, before the series returns to suburban Detroit on Wednesday night.

“Any time you’re in a series, the team that wins the last game has momentum,” Saunders said. “We have to find a way to take that momentum back.”

Miami was up 12 entering the fourth, but nearly gave it all away in the first 4 minutes of the period.

Detroit opened with an 11-0 run; McDyess had a layup and a free throw, Rasheed Wallace hit a jumper and — after O’Neal and Wade both missed a pair of free throws 35 seconds apart — Billups hit back-to-back 3-pointers, getting the Pistons within 74-73 with 7:44 left.

“All for naught,” Billups said.

O’Neal said such a run would have doomed the Heat earlier this season. Not anymore, especially not now, six wins away from an NBA title.

“Now we can sit back, curse each other out a little, and turn it on,” O’Neal said.

After Wade’s block and three-point play, O’Neal spun away from Ben Wallace for a jump hook 25 seconds later, pushing the lead back to six. With his team trailing by eight, Saunders went to the Hack-a-Shaq with 4:28 left, and it worked.

Sort of, anyway.

O’Neal missed both tries after being intentionally fouled, keeping Detroit within eight — but the Heat center got his own rebound, got fouled again, and hit each shot that time to put Miami up 85-75.

“That’s just a way of telling me you can’t stop me,” O’Neal said. “So, thank you. I appreciate it.”

In turn, the Heat went to the Hack-a-Ben, putting Ben Wallace on the line with 3:32 left. He was 1-for-6 at the time, then missed two more, and Wade got the rebound. Antoine Walker hit Udonis Haslem for a dunk on the ensuing possession, giving Miami an 89-79 edge. And that essentially sealed the outcome.

“It’s back to the drawing board,” McDyess said. “We need to look and see what we do wrong.”

Wade started 7-for-8 from the field for 15 points, including 13 consecutive Heat points in one stretch to give Miami a 30-24 lead. He didn’t score again in the half, and the Heat still stretched the cushion to 49-38 by intermission; Wade set O’Neal up for a dunk on the Heat’s final play of the half.

Detroit’s starting backcourt of Billups and Hamilton combined for 21 points in the first quarter, but only five in the second when the Pistons were outscored 23-14. The Pistons further hurt themselves by going 3-for-10 from the foul line in the second quarter, when Miami wasn’t awarded a single free throw.

The Pistons shot 17 of the game’s first 20 free throws, with Miami going more than 17 minutes without a trip to the line. Wade hit a pair with 7:42 left in the third to end the drought, O’Neal hit two about a minute later, and the Heat stars had 18 points in the period to help Miami carry a 74-62 lead into the fourth.

And although that cushion all but vanished, the Heat survived.

“We’re the first team in the playoffs to 10 wins,” Riley said. “We need six more.”

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