MIAMI – The pressure of Game 7 didn't faze the defending champions. In a deciding game that stayed close the entire 48 minutes, the Detroit Pistons (search) summoned their experience and played with calmness and poise down the stretch to defeat the Miami Heat (search) 88-82 Monday night in the final game of the Eastern Conference finals.
Now, it's back to the NBA Finals (search) for the team often dismissed as a fluke champion — a disparaging label if there ever was one, but one the Pistons can get rid of with four more wins.
Dwyane Wade (search) played for Miami after missing Game 6 because of a rib muscle injury, but he was only good for brief stretches. He finished with 20 points but didn't score over the final 15 minutes.
Richard Hamilton (search) scored 22 points, Rasheed Wallace added 20 — including two foul shots that put Detroit ahead for good with 1:26 remaining — and the Pistons closed the game with a 10-3 run to hand Miami yet another heartbreaking Game 7 loss on its home floor.
Detroit won for the 10th straight time when needing one victory to clinch a series, the second longest such streak behind the Lakers' record 12-game streak that ended in 2004.
The Pistons also became the first Eastern Conference team in 23 years to win a Game 7 on the road. They open the finals Thursday night at San Antonio.
Shaquille O'Neal led Miami with 27 points, but the Heat faltered offensively in the final two minutes — with Wade the biggest culprit when he forced up a 20-footer that missed badly with 1:13 left.
Wallace followed with a putback of Tayshaun Prince's miss to make it 82-79, and Detroit went 6-for-6 from the foul line — pressure, what pressure? — the rest of the way.
Wade scored 12 points in the third quarter, but he was wincing in pain in the game's final minutes. His basket with 3:10 left in the third quarter was his last of the night.
Detroit's victory extended Larry Brown's coaching career for at least four more games, pitting him against his good friend, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (search), and another dominant big man, Tim Duncan, in the finals. The Pistons and Spurs split their season series 1-1.
"I'm thrilled. It's like a dream come true. Coming from where I come from, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and now to get the opportunity to play for my second championship at 27, it's a great feeling," said Hamilton, who has scored 20 or more points in 16 of the Pistons' 17 postseason games.
Brown was elated as the final seconds ticked down, racing up the sideline to embrace Wallace near midcourt and then sprinting back to his bench to whoop it up a little more.
The sentimental pangs that Brown was experiencing before Game 6 were diminished this time.
"Not so much as the last game," Brown said. "I was home, my family was around. Now, I'm just excited about the opportunity, because these don't come around very much."
Brown has been with the Pistons for only two seasons, one of the shortest stints of his nomadic coaching career — but easily the most successful.
"It's turned out way beyond my wildest dreams," Brown said.
Detroit got 18 points from Chauncey Billups and 13 from Prince, proving once again that a team-wide effort can often be more than enough to defeat a team with two superstars. That's what the Pistons did against O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals last year, and that's what they did against O'Neal and Wade, too.
"That's what we do!," Hamilton yelled in a jubilant Detroit locker room.
"There's so much work ahead of us," Detroit center Elden Campbell said. "It's a relief to get past them. It was a tough series."
Wade was noticeably slow during the game's first few minutes, laboring as he ran at half-speed and missing his first three shots. There was a brief burst midway through the first quarter when Wade started to look more like himself, sprinting downcourt and feeding an alley-oop pass to O'Neal, then hitting a 3-pointer for a 17-9 lead.
Miami led 23-21 after one quarter behind 10 points from O'Neal on 5-for-6 shooting, but the Pistons went ahead early in the second quarter and stayed in front for the rest of the half.
Hamilton was the Pistons' main offensive weapon, shooting 8-for-10 for 16 points, but the Heat pulled to 45-40 at halftime after Eddie Jones hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from midcourt.
Wade was noticeably looser early in the third quarter, knocking down his first two shots and looking to penetrate the lane. But as good as his offense was, Detroit's was just as efficient.
Wallace hit an off-balance jumper and a 3-pointer after getting upset over the call that led to his third foul, and Billups was doing about whatever he pleased against Damon Jones.
But after Wade hit a floater and Billups missed a turnaround, Wade drove against two defenders and banked in a running right-hander from the left side over Wallace for a 60-60 tie.
Wallace drew his fourth foul with 1:48 left in the third quarter, and two free throws by Udonis Haslem gave the Heat their first lead, 62-60, since early in the second quarter.
After Wallace hit a corner jumper to pull the Pistons to 70-68, Detroit failed to score on five consecutive possessions and fell behind by six. But with Miami unable to take better advantage of the drought, Detroit tied the game 74-74 on a 3-pointer by Billups with 4:58 left.
Notes:@ Damon Jones sprained his left ankle in the first quarter but returned before halftime. He scored only one point. ... This was the 91st Game 7 in NBA history. The home team has a 74-17 record. ... The Pistons are 4-4 in Game 7s, while Miami is 2-2.