The final play of the first half perfectly illustrated the power of two.
Miami's Dwyane Wade cut off a high screen and drove into the lane, drawing his defenders before lofting a tantalizing alley-oop pass to Shaquille O'Neal, who was cutting on a telepathic line to the basket. O'Neal dunked with joyous ferocity, swinging on the rim and smiling.
All night, the Pistons had to choose. As dominating as O'Neal was on this night, Wade was even better. And because the twosome barely missed, they presented the Pistons with a no-win situation Saturday night.
Wade scored 10 of his game-high 35 points in the final quarter, lifting the Miami Heat past its only patch of trouble from the Pistons and on to a 98-83 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Back in front of his home crowd at the American Airlines Arena, O'Neal complemented Wade by scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
He and Wade combined to shoot 24 for 32, obliterating Chauncey Billups' spirited attempt to get his team back into the game.
Billups made two 3-pointers with just under eight minutes to play, and the Pistons then climbed to a point behind, the closest margin since the first quarter. The only problem was that Wade and O'Neal were there to answer.
On the next Pistons possession, Wade defended Antonio McDyess' dunk attempt in the air. The ball hit the rim. Wade got it and stormed up the court, driving into the lane and drawing the foul. His 3-point play, coupled with O'Neal's hook shot on the ensuing Heat possession, stretched the lead to six points.
With 4 minutes 29 seconds to play, Detroit resorted to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. He missed two free throws but got the rebound on his second attempt. He was fouled and then made both free throws to give Miami a 10-point lead.
On the other end of the court, Ben Wallace missed three out of four free throws in the final three minutes, and the Pistons, as they had all night, squandered their chance. Despite 32 points from a revived Billups and 20 from Richard Hamilton, the Pistons put themselves in a difficult hole -- again. Heat coach Pat Riley, a devotee of statistics, had to like this startling one coming into the series: O'Neal has never lost a playoff series when his team has won the opening game. He is 25-0 overall in those series.
With history and determination adding weight to his 330-plus-pound frame, O'Neal towered over his opponents all night.
The Pistons were off balance from the start, thrown off by the Heat's inside-outside punch. Detroit had the perimeter firing but could not crack Miami's active defense around the basket.
For most of the game, the Heat held a double-digit cushion and the Pistons played without their characteristic energy, going into the final quarter trailing, 74-62.
Billups was determined to break out of his shooting slump (36 percent in the previous five games), and his 14 points in the first half kept the Pistons in the game. Hamilton added 12 points, but Miami's frontcourt dominated the Pistons' after Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace each picked up two quick fouls.