MIAMI -- Sitting in his office Sunday, Pat Riley could hear
joyful strains echoing from the Miami Heat locker room.
And why not?
The Heat have a 2-1 lead over Detroit in the Eastern Conference
finals, could go up two games by winning at home Monday night in
Game 4, and have two superstars the Pistons simply cannot seem to
slow down in Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal.
Yet there's this factoid about Detroit that cannot be forgotten:
The Pistons have proved repeatedly in recent years to be at their
best when their season is hanging by a tenuous thread -- which it
might be now.
"That's just us. Just the heart of a champion," Pistons
forward Rasheed Wallace said. "Yeah, we're down right now 2-1, but
we think that we can overcome any deficit that is put in front of
Detroit's track record backs that up, something Riley stressed
to his team -- as if it needed a reminder.
The Pistons rallied from 2-1 deficits against both Indiana and
Miami in last season's East playoffs, winning Game 4s in each of
those series by an average of 11.5 points -- then came back yet
again against the Heat, overcoming a 3-2 deficit to deprive Miami
of what would have been its first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
And this year, Detroit was in another perilous spot, down 3-2
against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second
round. They survived that one, and already recovered from a
one-game deficit against Miami in this series, knotting the
best-of-seven with a win in Game 2.
"They were just a bunch of guys in the locker room, talking
about the game and there's a lot of levity but that's how you feel
after a win," Riley said. "I walked in and said, 'I know you're
happy. You were happy after Game 1, too. Are you hungry?' That's
going to be the thing."
Wade, who scored 35 points and is shooting an eye-catching 69
percent in this series against the defense-minded Pistons, said
Miami's plan is to focus only on its own game and not Detroit's
penchant for playing through adversity.
"Our whole concern right now is the way that we come out and
play, the way that we attack," Wade said. "We feel that if we do
that, it's going to be hard -- not only for the Pistons, but any
team we play, it'd be hard for them to guard us because we've got
so many different weapons."
It's clear the Pistons are not happy -- a given, after O'Neal and
Wade combined for 62 points on 24-for-32 shooting in Miami's 98-83
win in Game 3.
Rasheed Wallace kicked a chair in frustration Saturday night; he
wouldn't specifically discuss why, but seemed to take a thinly
veiled shot at the officiating by saying, "I ain't going to
mention why, because I don't want to get fined."
Before practice Sunday, Ben Wallace shooed away questions about
the Pistons' level of frustration. And guard Chauncey Billups, who
had 31 points and keyed an 11-0 run that got Detroit within one
point with 7 minutes left but ended there, acknowledged that his
team isn't exactly on an emotional high.
"Losing is frustrating, man. Losing is frustrating," Billups
said. "Nobody's happy about the way you play when we lose a game.
I can respect that."
The Pistons had some gripes to air on Sunday, and they all
weren't about the Heat.
Some openly wondered why Detroit didn't try to use
matchup-nightmare Rasheed Wallace more offensively, and 'Sheed
himself took issue with coach Flip Saunders' decision to employ the
Hack-a-Shaq strategy in the fourth quarter.
"It never worked when I was in Portland. It didn't work now,"
he said. "To me, personally, if I was the coach, I don't like
that. But that's just my personal opinion."
But he stopped short at saying the Pistons were having a rift
with Saunders, who inherited a team that won two straight East
titles and drew the unenviable task of defending them.
"It ain't like he can come out there, throw some shorts on,
lace some sneaks up and come out there with us," Rasheed Wallace
said. "But, I mean, he's just got to do his thing from the
sideline. That's all."
For his part, Saunders said he's not feeling any extraordinary
"No more pressure than ever before," Saunders said. "Anytime
you're in a situation (where) ultimately there's 30 teams in the
league and there's 29 that are unhappy. Ultimately the bottom line
is you want to win the whole thing, and everything else becomes
pretty much second fiddle."
Rallying from a 2-1 deficit is one thing. Facing a 3-1 hole is
something that very few teams in NBA history -- eight, to be exact --
have recovered from, and the Heat know they could take complete
command of the series Monday.
"We've got a great opportunity in front of us, and the guys
here understand that," Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. "So it's
just a matter of taking advantage of that opportunity and not
letting this opportunity slip away."