With a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, injured star Dwyane Wade provided an emotional lift for the Miami Heat, but it was the experience and poise of the Detroit Pistons that won the day.
Richard Hamilton scored 22 points and Rasheed Wallace had 20, including the go-ahead free throws with 1:26 remaining in a 10-3 closing run, helping the Pistons rally past the Heat for a thrilling 88-82 victory in Game 7 to win the Eastern Conference finals series.
"We beat a great team and in order to do that you have to have guys step up," Pistons coach Larry Brown said. "It was a total team win and we played perfect down the stretch. I know Dwyane was less than a 100 percent but he was still phenomenal."
Chauncey Billups had 18 points and Tayshaun Prince added 13 for Detroit, which fought off elimination Game 6 before capping the comeback on the road.
"This is the best series I ever played in," said Billups, who made four free throws in the final 15 seconds to ice the win. "Miami had a great season but we're still the champs."
The Pistons will look to defend their NBA title on the road against the well-rested Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs beginning Thursday night in the best-of-seven-game series.
The two clubs split the two game regular-season series.
"They're an unbelievable team and they have some great players as we do," Billups said. "Tim Duncan is probably one of the greatest to play the game ever. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are playing great. I think it will be another great series and we're looking forward to it."
Shaquille O'Neal scored 27 points and Wade had 20 but just one decisive final quarter as Miami let a six-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, dashing hopes of its first NBA Finals appearance in its 17-year existence.
"We had the lead in the fourth, but they had more defense and hustle and got to the ball," O'Neal said. "Maybe [the Pistons] had more experience than we did ... I don't think anybody expected us to get this far, but we had a lot of opportunities to get it done ... We just had a phenomenal season. Everybody fought. Guys played well. We almost had it."
Wade put on a courageous effort despite playing with a painfully strained right rib muscle that kept the second-year All-Star guard out of Game 6 and restricted the all-star guard's movement.
"When someone is having to stick a needle in your chest just so you could play..." said Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, referring to the cortisone injection. "He was just phenomenal."
Wade didn't think it was anything extraordinary considering the circumstances.
"Anybody in my position would have done the same thing whether it was taking a shot or whatever it is," he said. "This is Game 7, you want to be at your best, but I really couldn't do that. I couldn't give my all out best but I tried to come out and gut it out. I tried to whatever I could to give these guys confidence that I was going to be with them every step of the way. I think I did that for the most part."
The Pistons led 50-45 on the strength of Hamilton's 16 points while Wade was noticeably slower and finished with eight. Wade began to loosen up in the third quarter though. He hit five of six shots for 12 points, sparking the Heat to a 66-64 edge heading into the final quarter.
"I felt it slipping away, so I thought I'd put it in my hands a little bit," Wade said. "I did what I could do and my teammates knew I only had a certain amount of energy to put out."