Shaquille O'Neal played all night like a man possessed, like a man possessing three rings and aching for one more.
With his sick co-superstar, Dwyane Wade, needing fluid injections all day, O'Neal infused the Miami Heat with energy and purpose that debilitated the Detroit Pistons, who could only stand and watch O'Neal take their era away.
When Pat Riley, the Heat president, brought O'Neal to Miami in a blockbuster 2004 trade, O'Neal proclaimed he would bring a championship to the city.
One season removed from a heartbreaking series loss to the Pistons that prompted Riley to rip up the roster and descend from the front office back to the sideline, O'Neal took the Heat closer than ever to that goal.
Grabbing 16 rebounds like he did a decade ago and nimbly hitting jump hooks and dunks that sent the backboard swaying for 28 points, O'Neal delivered a 95-78 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
He lifted the franchise to its first trip to the NBA finals in its 18-year existence. And while the Heat's owner, Micky Arison, Riley and Miami's role players embraced the trophy with wide smiles, O'Neal was unusually reserved.
"The job is still not done," he said. "I told the guys to enjoy tonight and tomorrow we have to turn it back on. We don't just want to make it to the finals, we want to win the whole thing."
The Heat will play the winner of the Dallas Mavericks-Phoenix Suns series Thursday in Game 1 of the finals, but for now, Miami savored the victory, which was settled by halftime when O'Neal had 19 points and nine rebounds.
"Shaquille is Shaquille," Riley said. "We couldn't get him the ball enough."
O'Neal was hungry. And for the largest man in the league to be that hungry, it was a sight to behold. The Pistons could only shake their heads and sigh, a quiet coda to their fourth consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
Winners of the 2004 NBA title, the Pistons once promoted the model of team play, the concept that five cohesive players were better than a couple of superstars.
That theory, already lacking conviction coming into Game 6, crumbled Friday under the avalanche of missed shots, missed opportunities and the unmistakable presence of the man in the middle.
"They've been the stronghold in the East for the last four years," Riley said of the Pistons. "They've been our nemesis the last three years and in order for us to beat them we were going to have to put the hammer down, and that's what it was going to take."
While the Heat frustrated the Pistons into 33.3 percent shooting, Miami shot 55.7 percent. Not only did O'Neal make 12 of his 14 shots, the Heat received an unlikely lift in the backcourt.
Jason Williams, the other guard in the Heat backcourt and a key component in another big trade last summer, made his first eight shots and 10 of 12 to add 21 points on a night when Wade scored only 14.
"We didn't make shots from the beginning, we were fighting uphill most of the way and couldn't get over the hump," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.
And just like that, the team with the best record, the back-to-back N.B.A. finalist which had won a franchise-best 64 games in the regular season, departed the playoffs.
"I can't remember the last time we played defense like this," Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said, echoing the not-so-subtle criticism that players leveled at Saunders between Games 3 and 4, which they also lost in Miami.
Saunders replaced Larry Brown this season, the only major change from a team that beat the Heat last year in Game 7 of the conference finals and then lost to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA finals.
The Pistons first embraced his offensive freedom, but without the discipline on both ends of the court, they floundered.
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