Heat got Shaq's back
Shaq at "75 percent" was pretty darn impressive in Game 3.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't pick his NBA championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000, 2001 and 2002. The 13-year NBA veteran wouldn't pick his squad from last season that included Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. And forget about his Orlando Magic team with Penny Hardaway that advanced to the NBA Finals in 1995.
Although the Miami Heat haven't won an NBA championship or even been to the Finals yet, O'Neal, unsolicited, picked this squad as the elite of every stellar team he has ever worn a uniform for.
"This is the best team I've been on my whole career," said O'Neal, following the Heat's 113-104 victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
So why did Shaq pick the Heat?
For one, O'Neal has had no problems making it public that he has enjoyed playing with Dwyane Wade -- with whom he combined for 60 points in Game 3 -- much more than he did with his Bryant and Hardaway, who became more rivals than teammates for the Big Fella.
But even a bigger reason for O'Neal is the way this Heat squad has picked him up in a way that none of his previous squads have ever had to.
O'Neal entered this season with 158 playoff games under his sizable belt, never having missed a playoff game.
But without O'Neal for two games, the Wade-led Heat stepped up to sweep the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In Game 2 of the conference finals, O'Neal was far from his dominating self with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but Wade scored 40 points to lead the Heat to victory.
And now, in Sunday's Game 3, while O'Neal had his best game of the series with 24 points, Wade added 36 and Eddie Jones 19 to steal a major win in Detroit.
"This is something I'm not used to," Shaq said after the win. "I'm not upset. I'm just fortunate that my team swept the first two series and I was able to get a lot of rest and have a good series this series.
"I'm just getting better and better. It is just like a bunch of worker bees protecting the king bee. I'm not a queen bee. I'm a king bee. Once I get it back going, it's going to be fun."
Game 3 was definitely the best O'Neal had felt in a while. After three days off between Games 2 and 3, and after his thigh felt good early, O'Neal took advantage of the Pistons' refusal to double-team him by scoring eight points on 4-of-4 shooting in the first quarter. He made 8-of-13 shots in the game and hit 7-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter while adding five assists.
O'Neal just has one day off before Game 4 in Detroit. But there will be no flight to take, no physical exertion today and extra motivation to fight through the pain Tuesday.
"The injury's about 75 percent," O'Neal said. "But I'm just going to go out with the guys and suck it up. Go back to the hotel and get some rest. Watch ESPN and eat some room service and drink a couple waters and call my kids and look at the city and have a good time."
The Heat are still a long way from winning their first NBA championship and still have to go through the champs to get there. But no matter what happens, O'Neal has already said that this Heat team is the best. Considering how touched he seems by the way they have gotten his back when he hasn't been at his best, one can hardly blame him for the way he feels.
Said Shaq: "I got guys sticking up for me and guys that just want to win and stick up for each other. We do what we're supposed to do."
No, Shaq didn't knock 'Sheed out, except figuratively, in Miami's Game 3 victory. In a game marred with fouls and technical fouls, O'Neal's second-quarter reach was more symbolic than painful.
The whistles came fast and furious in Miami's Game 3 win on Sunday night, putting the Pistons at a major disadvantage in two ways.
The first was no surprise foul trouble hurt the Pistons much more than it did Miami because of the Heat's superior bench. This was especially true up front, where Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace and sixth man Antonio McDyess both picked up their fifth fouls fairly early in the fourth quarter. As a result, deep reserve Elden Campbell played center while the Heat took control of the game late.
The second disadvantage for Detroit was a surprising one: The team that hurt itself with poor free-throw shooting wasn't Miami. Detroit shot just 28-for-43, and it did that well only by making its last seven after the game was largely decided. Meanwhile, Miami hit a more reasonable 70.8 percent of its whopping 54 free-throw tries (the most in a playoff game since 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau), including a surprising 8-for-12 by Shaquille O'Neal.
In the three games, the frequency of whistles has gone a long away toward determining the winner. The two clubs combined for only 24 fouls in Game 1, which Detroit won fairly easily, but in Miami's two wins, the rate of fouls ballooned to 55.5 fouls per game. So if you're looking for a bellwether for Game 4, keep track of the whistles. If the refs keep them in their pockets, it's the Pistons' best chance to even the series.
The questions started rolling in Sunday on the eve of Game 4, but the Suns were ready.
They knew they were going to be asked if a 3-0 deficit to San Antonio in the West finals has underlined the shortcomings of the Suns' offense-is-our-defense approach.
"They have the better team," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They have played the better basketball. But I don't think it has anything to do with the system.
"We haven't played real well. That's my viewpoint. That's what I think and that's what the team thinks. We just have to get better at what we do. Have to get a little smarter and play better. I don't think it's an indictment anyway. But we know good defense and good offense wins. We have good offense -- we just have to better our defense."
Suns guard Steve Nash, meanwhile, credits the Spurs' experience -- and their perennial MVP candidate -- as the decisive factors so far.
"You can say whatever you want, but I think the big difference is No. 21 is a terrific player," Nash said of San Antonio's Tim Duncan. "No matter what style (a team has). If you played walk-it-up basketball, I think you'd have a much harder time. They are a terrific team and he's one of the best players ever to play."
"I just think that the disparity that we're talking about is four to five baskets [per game]," D'Antoni added. "That's why it's hard for me to say the system works or doesn't work, because the margin of victory is very thin. We just have to do what we do a lot better."
Marc Stein, in San Antonio
Play of the Day
Detroit's Rip Hamilton, earning his nickname after his 33-point night went for naught thanks to the Pistons' fourth-quarter collapse.
Everyone will say it was that shot.
That it was D-Wade's shot that did it.
After being on the bench forever, Dwyane came in cold against Tayshaun, backed him down, spun around and dropped one in from like 18 out, fading away.
Then he jogged downcourt, backwards, looking at his bench -- at Coach Van Gundy specifically -- as if to say: "What!? Whose world is this!"
But we all know the deal.
Flash's 36 didn't win this game, and neither did Diesel's 7-for-8 from the line in the fourth.
Truth told, Detroit better hope this Eddie Jones don't show up again.
Because it was EJ who R.I.P.'d Rip City tonight.
The Heat won Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Detroit, 113-104, ending the Pistons' streak of defensive dominance at home.
The Pistons had held their opponents below 100 points in each of their last 37 regulation-length home playoff games, an all-time NBA record.
The previous record of 36 was set by the Minneapolis Lakers from 1949 to 1955, mostly before the 24-second clock was implemented.
Miami became the first visiting team to score 100 points in a regulation playoff game on the Pistons' home court since Orlando won in Detroit, 101-98, in a first-round game in 1996.
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The Heat's Game 3 win puts them on the right track to win the series, even more than you might think.
In NBA playoff history, when a seven-game series is tied 1-1, the Game 3 winner has won 111 of 146 series (76.0 percent):
You have to wonder if it's an actual entry in the Spurs' playbook.
Manu Ginobili has amazingly scored a fast-break layup off the opening tip to start two of the three games in the Western Conference finals.
Which means Step 1 for Phoenix, from 3-0 down, is stopping Ginobili from taking a long tap from the center jump and streaking in for an easy deuce.
"You would think (we'd anticipate) Ginobili might get it," said exasperated Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.
Any little bit would help, since San Antonio has led by an average of 9.3 points after the first quarter of Games 1-3.
There's a long way to go before you can call them the Phoenix Red Sox.
Four victories, to be exact ... in a league where no team has ever won a seven-game series after falling into a 3-0 hole.
Only three teams in NBA history have forced a Game 7 in this situation.
They are: Portland against Dallas in 2003, Denver against Utah in 1994 and New York against Rochester in 1951.
The Suns are the 77th team in league history to face a 3-0 series deficit.