CAN TWO beat five?That was the damning question that, entering the Eastern Conference finals,appeared to favor the Detroit Pistons--the epitome of balanced, five-manbasketball--over the Miami Heat, whose roster, despite the presence of once andfuture MVPs Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, resembled for much of the seasona chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong. "We were all out of sync earlyin the year," says Heat power forward Udonis Haslem. "Everybody wastrying to get a feel for each other."
And yet thepredictable showdown between the East's two best teams produced a mostunpredictable role reversal: Suddenly the Pistons appeared out of sync, whilethe Heat grabbed a 3-1 lead thanks to the type of unselfish play that Detroitused to take for granted. "They're seeing a different team," saysforward Antoine Walker, a former franchise player with the Boston Celtics whofinally appeared to be settling into a productive secondary role supportingShaq and Wade.
The Pistons knewthey were in trouble during their 98-83 Game 3 loss when Walker--whose quicktrigger from beyond the arc has been criticized all season--repeatedly up-fakedfrom behind the three-point line and drove past Tayshaun Prince into the paint,where he scored eight of his 11 points. There's a reason Wade and Shaq wereable to combine for 62 points on just 32 field goal attempts: the defensiveattention suddenly demanded by Walker, Haslem and point guard Jason Williams,who spread the floor and knocked down open shots. (The trio shot a combined52%.) "The way [teams] load up defensively," Miami coach Pat Riley saysof the focus on Shaq and Wade, "we need other players when the ball goesaway from them."
That's why Rileycalled out Haslem after his 1-for-12, zero-offensive-board disaster in thefirst two games of the series. "He needs to step up big time in the effortarea," Riley said after Game 2, a 92-88 Detroit victory. Haslem respondedwith 26 points (on 55% shooting) and 12 rebounds over the next two games,though he admitted after Game 3 that he was still adapting to the drasticchanges forced by Riley's preseason acquisitions of Walker, Williams, GaryPayton and James Posey, each of whom, with the exception of Posey, had beenaccustomed to being a focal point of their team's offense. "I got confusedabout what they wanted from me offensively," Haslem says. "I thoughtwhen Shaq got the ball that I [should] spread the floor to keep Rasheed[Wallace] out of his way. In the process I took myself out of reboundingposition."
Miami's newcohesiveness increases the heat on the Pistons, who, for all the talk abouttheir upgraded offense, haven't generated good looks late in close games duringthese playoffs. In the past (read: during the defense-first regime of LarryBrown) the Pistons' D was able to produce easy baskets. "We ain't winningno championships trying to outscore everybody," says Ben Wallace. In Game 3Detroit's backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton combined for 51points, but the starting frontcourt shot a combined 5 for 19. As predicted theseries has been a two-on-five contest ... with the Heat benefiting from notonly the two leading men but the three best supporting actors as well.
U DA MAN A nonfactor early, Haslem (40) has been a catalyst for Miami's newfound chemistry.