Updated: Jan. 4, 2006, 8:27 PM ET

Why Heat are team to beat

Coming into the season, I picked the Miami Heat to win the East.

After Detroit's impressive 106-101 win over Miami on Thursday, to raise its record to 24-3, it's clear the conference title will be won or lost in Auburn Hills, Michigan. But I still think it's Miami's conference to lose. With an asterisk.

Let me explain.

We learned three basic things in Thursday's game.

First, Miami has serious issues on the perimeter.

They can't stop the Pistons' star guard tandem of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, or anyone else, really. Billups in particular just goes wherever he wants to go.

Jason Williams isn't getting any quicker, and Gary Payton isn't getting any younger.

Dwyane Wade has the athletic ability to be a great defensive guard, but he doesn't really focus himself on that end. He just drifts along, somewhat like LeBron James in Cleveland.

That could be a fatal flaw for Miami.

Second, the Pistons are much better prepared to win these sorts of games than the Heat are.

The Pistons know each other so well that it really doesn't matter who has the ball. The Heat, on the other hand, are still figuring each other out.

The game was tied 99-99 with 2:05 remaining, when Udonis Haslem hit a jumper. Billups drove for a layup, and then he drove and kicked to Rasheed Wallace for a 3-pointer. Game over. But Billups could have passed to Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince and expected the same result.

The Heat don't have that sort of chemistry yet. Shaquille O'Neal is still getting into shape, Pat Riley is still getting a handle on things, and overall the team plays as if they're coming out of training camp.

Third, we saw signs that Riley knows how to use Shaq.

In the past two seasons, while Shaq has lost each season to the Pistons in the postseason, he's demonstrated that he can do whatever he wants to against them, and that was true again on Thursday. The Pistons play single coverage on Shaq, and they really can't stop him.

Riley will take advantage of this better than Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson did. He is willing to get the ball to Shaq time after time, much as he did in the 1980s with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Van Gundy's preference was to run plays for other players on many occasions, and in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant had the ball and Shaq often had to wait to get it, even when he was open.

In Miami, Wade will have the ball a lot, but he is more unselfish than Kobe. Shaq will get the ball when open, as we saw in the first half, when, before he got tired, Shaq dominated the Pistons down low.

Ultimately, these last two points will eventually work in the Heat's favor.

Even with all of Miami's problems -- the poor perimeter defense, the lack of cohesion, and Shaq's inability to finish the game strongly -- and even with the Pistons playing at the absolute top of their game, and in perfect health, the game was tied with two minutes to go, in Detroit.

Assuming Shaq can get his health back to 100 percent, or close, Pat Riley and the Heat will figure out how to get the best of the team in these late, close situations. They'll get the ball to Shaq and to Wade, and they'll learn how to finish out games like Thursday's and go to the NBA Finals.

But if Shaq isn't healthy, there really isn't a team to stop the Pistons in the East. So while the Heat are still my team to beat, the conference title still goes through Detroit.

Talk back to the Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: December 21 | 22 | 23 | 24-25 | 27 | 28 | 29

Making The Leap

On his sixth team in just nine seasons, and never an All-Star, Detroit's Chauncey Billups has become such a reliable scorer and leader that he's suddenly an MVP candidate. On this play, however, Dwyane Wade got the best of him, coming out of nowhere to swat Billups' layup.

Grading The West
The Spurs thumped the Hornets 111-84 on Thursday to solidify their hold on the Western Conference.

In his assessment of all 15 Western Conference teams, here's how Chris Sheridan sees San Antonio so far:

Inside the record: The defending champs' mark of 23-7 is good enough for first place in the conference, but not quite in line with the level of greatness we all expected from them. Of their seven losses, only one of the games (a Dec. 20 overtime loss at Milwaukee) has been close.

Most telling stats: Tony Parker is shooting an astounding 53.7 percent from the field, more than two points higher than Tim Duncan, but the team's free-throw percentage (68.6) is among the NBA's worst.

Changes ahead? In the final year of his contract, center Nazr Mohammed has more fouls (65) than field goals (58).

The boss says: "I'm concerned, but I'm not frantic," coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. "We don't have that edge defensively that we've had the last few years. I'd be scared to death if the playoffs were next week."

Trade asset: Mohammed's $5.5 million contract that runs out after this season.

Grade: B+

See Sheridan's report card for all 15 West teams

NBA Intelligence Report

At 21, LeBron's Ahead Of Everyone
"LeBron James turns 21 years old today. Pause for a moment to think about it. Pause, because no one in the 59-year history of the NBA has done more at 21 than he has. No one. At 21, James is playing in his third season. He has logged more minutes (7,629), scored more points (4,649), picked off more rebounds (1,187), handed out more assists (1,191) and gotten more fans out of seats with jaw-dropping dunks at 21 than anyone who's ever played before him. That includes Jordan, Bird and Magic a couple of decades ago. It includes Mikan, Wilt, Kareem and West eons ago." -- Cleveland Plain Dealer

Marbury: Don't Trade Me
"Stephon Marbury, in a rare effusive mood, said he's not looking for a divorce. In fact, he gave a panicked plea to Knicks brass and owner James Dolan not to trade him, though he acknowledged the possibility. Trading Marbury will be extremely difficult, as after this season he still has three years and $60.3 million left on his pact. Isiah Thomas said two weeks ago if Larry Brown and Marbury don't click, he will trade him." -- New York Post

Talk Of Snub Circles Brand
"The news about the stellar play of Clippers forward Elton Brand is either going out by Pony Express or there are hardware glitches in scores of home computers. Brand is the only player in the league ranked among the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocked shots per game. Yet when the second All-Star balloting results were released Thursday, Brand was seventh among Western Conference forwards." -- Orange County Register

Teammates Endorse Stoudamire's Experience
As someone who converted a number of big shots for the Grizzlies last season, guard Mike Miller appreciates Stoudamire's unflappable demeanor. 'He stays in the moment,' Miller said. 'He's a guy who always plays in the moment. Anytime you do that, you've got a chance to make big plays.' Swingman Shane Battier summed up Stoudamire in a word: Experienced. 'There's no one we'd rather have the ball in the hands of down the stretch,' Battier said." -- Memphis Commercial-Appeal

Read the entire Intelligence Report on ESPN Insider Insider

The Big Question Mark

He's pushing 34, and a shadow of himself some nights, but the fate of the Eastern Conference still depends on how Shaquille O'Neal feels when April and May roll around, writes Tim Legler.

Extreme Behavior

Thursday's Best
Dwyane Wade, Heat guard: Billups helped his MVP case and Hamilton solidified his All-Star case, but Wade was the best player on the floor, with 33 points on just 20 shots, plus nine assists and six rebounds.


Thursday's Worst
Antoine Walker, Heat forward: 'Toine seemed more lost than savior in his 15 minutes, shooting 1-for-5 for three points, with one rebound. Give him credit for waving a mean towel during the Miami rally, however.

Quote of the Day
"We had the game all the way, we just made a lot of silly mistakes down the stretch. You can't do that against a team like Detroit. They are the same as last year. They can be beat."
-- Miami C Shaquille O'Neal, on the Pistons

See how all 58 who played stacked up

-- Royce Webb

An Excess Of Success

Sharif (Bay City, MI): Hey Chad, I don't think the Pistons could or should go for 70+ wins (they'll hit in the mid-60s). I'm afraid at the pace they are working their starters, that they are going to get tired. Is it time to trade Darko or another Piston for some frontcourt help now?

Chad Ford: You know things are going great when you start worrying about too much success.

However, your point is well taken. Flip has to find time to work in his rotation players, especially against teams like the Raptors.

Why were all the starters out there on the floor in the fourth with a comfortable lead? What happened to the preseason pledge to get Darko some meaningful minutes?

It's not a big deal now because the Pistons are playing fantastic basketball. But if an injury occurs or if guys get worn out, it will come back to haunt them. An NBA title is more important than a 70-win season.

Complete Chad Ford chat transcript Insider

Elias Says
Shaquille O'Neal scored 11 points in the first quarter of the Heat's loss to the Pistons. That equaled the highest first-period total ever by a center starting opposite Ben Wallace. The only others to oppose Wallace and score 11 points in the first period were David Robinson (2001) and Kevin Willis (1999).

O'Neal added six points in the second quarter, becoming the first center opposing Wallace to score more than 15 points by halftime since Shaq himself scored 17 in the first half on March 15, 2001. He finished with 24 points and nearly maintained his career scoring average of 26.6 in 12 head-to-head starts against Big Ben.

Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias Insider

Artest Latest

A source close to the Lakers told ESPN.com that Lamar Odom had received reassurance from the team, which told him he had not been included in any trade offers made to the Indiana Pacers.

The Lakers were apparently responding to rumors floating around the league that Los Angeles had become open to the idea of trading Odom in a Ron Artest deal.

See Chris Sheridan's complete report Insider

Daily Dime Mailbag
Many readers commented on Royce Webb's take on the Pistons in the Thursday Daily Dime.

A sampling:

Chris (NYC): Could someone please tell all of Michigan that, yes, the rest of us know the Pistons are really, really, really good? We don't need 1500 articles a week to tell us this, which is why the media is "not making a big enough deal about it" by only running 1490 articles a week about them.

Passau (Germany): Real nice article. Although I'm a big Pistons fan, still I was surprised by their phenomenal start. So, I agree with you: Pistons shouldn't try to go for the 70 wins. I've been complaining all season long about their short rotation. I would suggest more playing time for Carlos Delfino and Carlos Arroyo, and even Darko Milicic should get constantly about five minutes (preferably not garbage time) in order to relieve the starters.

Kevin (Detroit): Royce made many viable points about Detroit's potential run at 70 wins, but the one that I felt was a bit misguided was the one concerning the front line's yielding of 30 points or more to several star forwards in the past weeks.

I wouldn't chalk this up to the disinegration of the Wallaces and McDyess, but instead to a consistency of the Pistons' defensive system: allow one player on the opposing team to take on the Pistons by himself. If you look back to the 2004 Finals, these Pistons never double-team the opposing team's dominant player(s). They challenge the team as a whole to defeat them.

Game after game this season, if the other team can't involve the whole team in defeating the Pistons, they will rarely succeed. That is the hallmark of the Pistons, and not the individual statistics of the starting frontcourt players.

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