- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

MIAMI — With the outcome decided, Dwyane Wade strutted toward a swarm of teammates with his right fist clenched and a victorious smile lighting his sweat-drenched face.

The night belonged to him and the Miami Heat.

With one more win, so will the Eastern Conference crown.

Wade scored 12 of his 31 points in the final quarter last night, leading a late charge that carried the Heat to an 89-78 win over the Detroit Pistons and a 3-1 lead in the series. Miami is on the cusp of its first trip to the NBA Finals.

“I’m just a kid. There’s a kid inside of me who loves to play the game of basketball and is getting the opportunity to on the highest level,” Wade said. “And I’m just trying to do my best job at it. … Like I said, I’m just a kid in a candy store right now, having fun on one of the best teams in the NBA.”

A year ago, two chances at ending Detroit’s reign atop the East weren’t enough for Miami, as the Pistons rallied from 3-2 down to win in seven games. Now, the Heat get three cracks at breaking through, starting tomorrow in suburban Detroit — and this time, they have a healthy Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to carry them.

“We don’t want to get too high and mighty,” O’Neal said. “Job’s not done yet.”

O’Neal had 21 points — albeit with a 5-for-15 night at the foul line — and nine rebounds, while Udonis Haslem added 16 points for the Heat.

“We want to get to 12 wins and if they want it, and they want to get to the finals, it’d be a first for this franchise,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “I think they’re hungry and I think we’re going to go get it. We have great respect for the Pistons, but I think our heart’s into moving on.”

Tayshaun Prince had 15 points and Chauncey Billups added 14 for the Pistons, who’ll play host to Game 5 tomorrow night.

“We’ve got a lot of fight in us,” Billups said. “We have been down 3-1 before — not against a team as good as the Heat, though. And they’re playing great, man. You’ve got to give it to them. They are. They’re playing great ball. Their great players are playing phenomenal and other guys are chipping in pretty well.”

Teams taking 3-1 leads in the penultimate round — either the conference finals or division finals, as they were once known — have prevailed 40 times in 43 previous opportunities, and each of the last 16 teams with a 3-1 cushion has gone on to reach the NBA Finals.

“Strange things happen,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. “One play can change a game, one game can change a series. Basically, what we’ve got to do is come up with that play at home and try to change the series.”

Those oh-so-resilient Pistons — who’ve rallied from 2-1 or 3-2 series deficits five times in the last four postseasons — dug deep in Game 4, trailing by 14 points late in the first half as a white-towel-waving Miami crowd worked itself into a frenzy.

The Pistons answered with a 29-11 run over a 7-minute stretch — capped by Rasheed Wallace’s 3-pointer with 5:04 left in the third quarter — for a 57-53 lead. But Detroit managed only three more points in the quarter, and Wade hit a pair of free throws with 1.5 seconds left to put Miami up 62-60 entering the fourth.

Detroit never led again, but afterward, its confidence still seemed unflappable.

“I’ll take this five,” Rasheed Wallace proclaimed, “over any five in the world.”

Maybe so, but Detroit’s five is having all kinds of trouble with Miami’s best one.

Wade went 19:20 of on-court time — 22:09 of game time — without a shot, a span ending 15 seconds into the fourth quarter. Wade missed that try, a short jumper in the lane blocked by Antonio McDyess.

His next two shots were highlight-caliber.

Taking a pass from Gary Payton, Wade drove diagonally down the lane, leaped over McDyess, got fouled, tossed the ball over his shoulder — and scored, his three-point play putting Miami up 65-61.

And a jumper over Richard Hamilton, who was right in his face as the shot clock expired, gave the Heat a 69-63 lead with 9:27 left, prompting Wade to punch the sky.

“In the third quarter, they were doing a good job of forcing me off the ball,” Wade said. “In the fourth quarter, I said I’m going to take over a little bit.”

The celebration never ended the rest of the way, either, as the Heat continued rolling. Payton’s 3-pointer with 3:02 left pushed Miami’s lead to 85-71 and sealed the win.

“Everybody’s doing their job,” Heat backup center Alonzo Mourning said. “Dwyane Wade and Shaq have been spectacular, and the role players are doing their job.”

Wallace had 12 points, Hamilton 11 and Lindsey Hunter 10 for Detroit, which had five players in double figures to Miami’s three — but allowed the Heat to shoot 55 percent for the game, while making 39 percent of its own tries.

Wade set up James Posey for a 3-pointer with 2:11 left in the half to give the Heat what was their biggest lead at 42-28, but that’s when the Pistons began their 29-11 burst. Back and forth it went for a while, until the Heat ultimately pulled through.

“We’re on the same page,” Posey said. “We understand what each player brings to the table. Bottom line — we’re winning. That’s what you want.”

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