Pistons try to avoid two-game hole in East finals
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 us."
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 pressure.
"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."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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