Pistons 88, Heat 82

In the beginning Monday night, it was about individual performances: Shaquille O'Neal's first quarter, Richard Hamilton's first half, Dwyane Wade's third quarter. But in the deciding minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons, it was about surviving more than thriving. Shots ricocheted off the rim. Mistakes mattered. Injuries kicked in. Whistles sounded.

And the biggest shots, fittingly, came at the free throw line. Miami made a few, missed a few. In the last five minutes, the Pistons were perfect. Their cool, and Miami's unraveling, earned Detroit an 88-82 victory and its second straight invitation to the NBA Finals, which will begin Thursday in San Antonio against the Spurs.

Everything you need to know about Monday night's game at American Airlines Arena was reflected in the face of Chauncey Billups as he stood on the free throw line with less than a minute remaining and the game on the line. As Wade winced, Billups laughed between shots. He hit four straight in the last 17 seconds. Tayshaun Prince added two more.

"I thought we played kind of perfect down the stretch," Pistons Coach Larry Brown said. "We just got good guys in the locker room that have a lot of pride and I think character has a way of handling obstacles and adversity. That's what this team is about."

Ahead by 6 points with just over seven minutes remaining, the Heat sputtered at the worst possible time, spoiling its chances of advancing to its first NBA Finals in franchise history. O'Neal, who scored 10 in the first quarter and 27 overall, missed a key free throw and late shots. Damon Jones, who scored one point, missed one free throw and took one poor shot. Wade, clearly bothered in the fourth quarter by his strained right rib muscle, also missed a number of shots after looking like he couldn't miss just 12 minutes earlier.

"In a game that close, you have got to execute down the stretch," Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We didn't. That's why we are where we are now."

Detroit's victory was perhaps understandable given Miami's multitude of injuries: Wade missed Game 6 because of the rib injury suffered in Game 5. O'Neal, who missed two second-round playoff games, has been hobbled for weeks by a deep thigh bruise. Damon Jones has been bothered by a bruised heel and left Monday night's game briefly in the first quarter after rolling his ankle. Eddie Jones suffered a bruised foot earlier in the playoffs.

But given the talent Heat President Pat Riley assembled, most of it coming in the acquisition of O'Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and the fact that the game took place in front of a roaring Miami crowd, the defeat seemed nothing short of devastating for the Heat.

"I don't think, from a professional sense, from a basketball sense, that I've ever been more disappointed," Van Gundy said.

Wade did not take the court until minutes before tip-off, skipping the traditional warmup period in favor of extra time on the training table. When he did emerge from the locker room, he had received a painkiller injection and jogged out wearing a protective vest under his uniform jersey.

"Even if I wasn't playing at a high level, I just wanted to give the guys the confidence that I would be with them every step of the way," Wade said. "Our whole starting five was injured, so what? I couldn't be as athletic as I wanted to be . . . but I did what I could do."

He looked tentative at the start, passing up shots he would routinely take, turning over the ball because of his hesitation and avoiding the drives on which he usually thrives. By halftime, he had hit only 2 of 8 shots and had accumulated three fouls and three turnovers.

Clearly, though, he loosened up. Wade looked at ease during a third quarter in which he nearly single-handedly yanked the Heat back in the game, hitting five straight field goals and scoring 12 points in the period. He made running layups, drew fouls and dished off a pretty assist to O'Neal, who also contributed as Miami took the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter.

By the end of the night, Wade had collected 20 points on 7-of-20 shooting.

"They got two superstars," Billups said. "Our balance is the way we hurt them."

Indeed, Detroit, the defending NBA champion, got 22 points from Richard Hamilton, including 16 in the first half, 18 from Billups, 20 from Rasheed Wallace and 13 from Prince.

The Pistons' Richard Hamilton, left, hugs Lindsey Hunter as Chauncey Billups is all smiles after Detroit won two straight games over Miami.The Heat's Shaquille O'Neal, left, and Dwyane Wade combined for 47 points against Detroit, but it wasn't enough to push Miami to its first NBA Finals.