MIAMI -- The white slipcovers that had been placed over every seat in the arena started getting tossed around with a little over three minutes left, twirling in the air before falling atop the heads of the white-clad fans who stood and screamed with unbridled joy.
Finally, the Heat
A minute later, a shimmy-shake from back in the day came out of the body of Antoine Walker after his 3-pointer swished through. Next, a deafening roar of support was extended to Dwyane Wade as he exited the game and slapped palms with coach Pat Riley, the lungs of 20,258 faithful venting an eardum-busting chorus of unadulterated adulation and appreciation.
A massive chant of "Let's Go Heat" rattled the building with 40 seconds left, and when just 10 seconds remained several of the Detroit Pistons ran over to the Miami bench and started heartily congratulating the victors.
Mass euphoria is quite a sight to behold, and mass euphoria was what was taking place as the final minutes ticked off the clock and the Miami Heat celebrated a victory they had waited nearly two decades, through so many near-misses and disappointments, to enjoy.
Five minutes after the final buzzer sounded, almost nobody had left the building. They were all standing and cheering, letting out the emotions that had been stifled for so long.
Quite a scene it was after the Heat finished off the Pistons 95-78 Friday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to make it to the championship round for the first time in franchise history. Their past no longer mattered, and their future held the promise of something even better. Witnessing them enjoying meant being enveloped in mass glee.
"We've had a lot of near-misses, unlikely bounces, suspensions. We've had teams that were championship contenders. We had a major, major setback with Zo's kidney," coach Pat Riley said afterward, referring to reserve center Alonzo Mourning. "But ever since Shaquille O'Neal showed up on the scene, this team has been a legitimate contender, and we have put pieces around him. Obviously the drafting of Dwyane Wade and what he's become has speeded the whole process up."
But the Wade we've come to know was not the Wade who showed up at the arena for what turned out to be the biggest victory in franchise history. Instead, Wade arrived after having spent the morning at a hospital to receive intravenous fluids to fight off a flu bug that had him up all night vomiting and sweating. He was clearly not himself for long stretches of this game, but what made this victory all that more satisfying for the Heat was the way everyone around him took it upon themselves to step up their games and get the job done, healthy Wade or no healthy Wade. A year ago they couldn't, but a year later, with a changed supporting cast, they could.
There was Shaquille O'Neal being the dominant Shaq of old, scoring 28 points on 12-for-14 shooting with 16 rebounds and five blocks in his best game since the Heat finished off the Bulls in Game 6 of the first round.
There was Jason Williams knocking down his first ten shots and finishing 10-for-12 after barely being a factor in the first five games. His quick start made this Miami's game to lose from the first quarter on, and his six assists would have been even more impressive if they hadn't been trumped by Wade's 10.
As a team the Heat shot nearly 56 percent, and their defense held Detroit to just 53 points through the first three quarters as Miami opened a 19-point lead entering the fourth that was never seriously threatened. The one time the Pistons did appear to be making a run, O'Neal blocked a drive by Richard Hamilton and then scored at the other end, and a Detroit turnover on the next possession turned into a breakaway layup for Williams that got the lead up to 17 points and ended all doubt.
The celebrating started in earnest moments later, and the final few minutes were a love-fest for the players, fans, coach and owner who had waited so long for this moment to arrive. There was, however, one Big Exception.
"I know [Shaq] is not close to being happy like the rest of us were celebrating," Wade said. "For a lot of us it's our first time going to the finals."
But for O'Neal it will be his sixth trip, his third time with a different team. He was a loser in 1995 with Orlando and in 2004 with the Lakers, a three-time winner from 2000-2002 in Los Angeles, when he was at the peak of his career.
Games like the one Shaq played Friday night were commonplace back in his Lakers days but aren't so anymore, which is why eyebrows actually were raised a little by the type of game he had in this clincher. He's going to be a huge handful for the Dallas Mavericks if they make it out of the West, and a behemothian pain for the Phoenix Suns to deal with if they somehow manage to win Games 6 and 7 and take their charmed postseason run all the way to the finals.
Either way, this latest display put on by the Heat might just make them the favorite in the next round, and in a couple weeks we may just witness the outrageous sight of O'Neal emceeing a victory parade down Ocean Drive in South Beach.
But that, of course, is getting too far ahead of where we're at now.
For now, the Heat have knocked off their nemesis and make it somewhere they've never been before. They'll return to work Sunday while the Pistons are back home revisiting how and where it all went wrong, wondering if their three-year run as the class of the conference has already come to an end.
"They did what we used to do as a team, forcing their will on a team and playing the way they wanted to play. When they had an opportunity to go out and take control, that's exactly what they did," Pistons center Ben Wallace said. "They were the better team."
Yes they were. Say this out loud and let it sink in: The Miami Heat were better than the Detroit Pistons.
It was something they wanted to say last year but couldn't, something they strived to be all year and succeeded at.
Give 'em credit, The Pistons players kept saying in their locker room afterward as the party that had been rocking the building minutes earlier moved outside, this South Florida city letting loose with a celebration it had never had the pleasure of experiencing before.
They might just get a chance to ratchet up that euphoria to a whole new level in a couple of weeks. But for now, just getting to the finals felt better than anything the Heat had felt before. And the collective joy it spawned was truly something to behold.
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AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Heat coach Pat Riley, lower right, and his team raise the Eastern Conference trophy after defeating the Pistons, 95-78.
Flip Saunders seemed like a brilliant choice when the Pistons hired him. Saunders is the anti-Larry Brown. He's personable, a player's coach and the guy who was supposed to jump start the team's offense.
For most of the regular season, Saunders lived up to advance billing, and then some. The team performed at a very high level, making a run at 70 wins and showing more freedom and confidence than ever, and Saunders finished a strong third in the Coach of the Year voting.
However, he made some critical mistakes that might have cost the Pistons the title.
First, he refused to develop his bench. Not only did he ride his top six -- Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess -- into the ground, but he never developed the depth necessary to provide them relief.
Talented players like Darko Milicic, Carlos Arroyo and Carlos Delfino sat around doing little or nothing. Eventually Arroyo and Milicic were shipped out, with the rationale being that the Pistons might as well get rid of them if the coach wasn't going to play them. Delfino will ask for a trade when the season ends.
In the short term, the approach of riding the starters and the sixth man so hard brought success. The Pistons got what they wanted -- the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Now, Saunders' approach looks disastrous. The only logical replacement for Big Ben is playing in Orlando. The other young reserves have gotten no real experience.
This was supposed to be part of the reason Larry Brown got the ax -- he didn't develop the young guys. Saunders didn't either.
Also, Saunders was exposed in the playoffs a bit. He has shown that he's a talented coach, but the Pistons' players saw first-hand that he's no Larry Brown.
Now, the players can't throw all the blame Saunders' way. He can't make jump shots for them. But he seemed unable to motivate his team or make the right adjustments in the playoffs.
Gabe, Bearsville NY: Do you notice how the media flip flops so much? One minute the Pistons 1-3 are defiled, the next they are on there way to a Game 7 (climbing uphill like they do all the time). One minute Dirk Nowitzki is flawed the next he hits 50 and we all forget about the previous game. Is all this flip-flopping drama good for sports?
Chris Sheridan: It goes with the territory, Gabe, and it's what makes sports so compelling. Dirk's 50 last night was a heck of a statement, and the Pistons' cohesive performance in Game 5 struck some fear into the Heat. Watching the way players and teams respond to adversity is what keeps these series interesting, and I think both conference finals series have been pretty compelling despite a dearth of games going down to the final one or two possessions.
Shaq was immense (28 points and 16 rebounds) while Jason Williams scored 21 as Dwyane Wade battled dehydration and flu-like symptoms to score 14 points in the Game 6 clincher.
Heat Head To NBA Finals
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Seasoned vets like Shaquille O'Neal and Rasheed Wallace always keep their eyes on the prize. Shaq will don his third uniform in an NBA Finals (Magic, Lakers and Heat).
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Was this Ben Wallace's final game in a Detroit uniform? If Detroit doesn't show him the money, that is quite possible.
"I'm pretty sure everyone knows where my heart is," Ben Wallace finally conceded after ducking nearly every question about his future that came his way.
"It's in my chest," Wallace said. But will that heart and that chest remain committed to the Detroit Pistons?
Wallace wouldn't go so far as to say anything resembling those words.
The four-time Defensive Player of the Year was coy, curt and far from candid Friday night after the Pistons' season ended with a Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat, and the prospect of its being Big Ben's last game in a Pistons uniform was a notion he wouldn't quash in the aftermath of the defeat.
Wallace becomes an unrestricted free agent as of July 1, and it has widely been assumed -- in large part because of Wallace's public statements -- that he'll return to the franchise where he turned from a journeyman to a centerpiece.
All Wallace needed to say Friday night was that he wanted and expected to return, but he wouldn't go even that far while initially ducking questions about his future and then giving a few vague answers before exiting the locker room and getting on the team bus that would take the Pistons to the airport for the long flight back to Detroit.
After firing his old agent and saying he planned to have an attorney (billing on an hourly basis rather than taking a percentage) negotiate his new deal, Wallace went out last month and hired one of the most powerful deal brokers in the business, Arn Tellem.
"I needed an agent, that's all that is," Wallace said. "You know, everyone needs somebody to talk for them every now and then. They get tired of hearing your voice."
That statement was a lot more than Wallace would concede at the start of his interview, answering a somewhat vague question about what happens next with a curt "Next question."
Playing through June is everyone's goal in the league because it's reserved for the elite. But can the average fan comprehend the immense physical toll it takes on the human body?
After a certain amount of extreme physical exertion, a player's muscles beg him to stop and his body starts to break down. These players are phenomenal physical specimens whose bodies run like machines, but at a certain point, fatigue from the 100-plus games they have played catches up to them.
Every one of the key players that we are fascinated by night after night is experiencing varying degrees of pain. In the locker room after a taxing game, the number of ice packs the players have secured to their ailing bodies makes you feel like you are walking into a giant cooler.
The training staff and medical personnel tend to their teams relentlessly, mustering cures for sore and overworked bodies that take hard beatings during the games. In most cases this admirable care is unseen and underappreciated.
Look at Raja Bell, who dropped like a fly simply running up the court when his calf was seized by severe pain. He suffered a mild to moderate tear when he was not even going all-out at the time.
The pace of the playoffs in the Western Conference has been blistering, and at times it has taken a visible toll on Steve Nash. He admits to having heavy legs and an aching back at times but claims most players are dealing with these conditions.