Practice gives Heat edge

NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION: Following an early practice, Dwyane Wade had 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, and Miami overcame New Jersey 102-92 to take a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series

AP , EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY AND LOS ANGELES

Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 20

The wake-up call came early on Sunday for an 8am walk-through -- a decidedly unusual gathering in NBA circles.

"Make no mistake," Udonis Haslem said. "It was grueling."

But it worked -- and Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and company are a win away from a return to the Eastern Conference finals.

"We're not surprised. When we play Miami Heat basketball on both ends of the floor, we're a tough team to beat, at home or on the road," Wade said. "We go home to Game 5 and try to close it out at home."

Wade was sensational as usual, but it was the play of Antoine Walker and Haslem during a key stretch of the third quarter that gave Miami the cushion it needed to hold on for its third straight victory. The Heat can now wrap it up when they host Game 5 on Tuesday night in Miami.

"I've said it all year," O'Neal said. "If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be fine."

Walker scored 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting and Haslem added 20 points and 11 rebounds, shooting 8-of-11. They combined for 16 of Miami's 22 points during the third period, when the Heat built their lead to as much as 11.

"They hit shots, they hit a lot of shots," Nets forward Richard Jefferson said. "Udonis Haslem, I swear he didn't miss one tonight."

Jason Kidd tried to rally the Nets, collecting his ninth postseason triple-double and moving over to guard Wade after his hot start. But New Jersey could never regain the lead after the first quarter.

Kidd had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, tying Wilt Chamberlain for third place on the postseason career list and moving within one of Larry Bird for second.

Vince Carter added 26 points and Jefferson scored 17. Nenad Krstic had 20 points and 14 rebounds.

Only eight teams in 163 series have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series, though it did happen earlier in this postseason when the Phoenix Suns rallied past the Los Angeles Lakers.

"It's tough. You want to take care of business at home," Carter said. "We put ourselves in the hole. We're not going to hang our heads and say it's over. I expect us to come out stick together, play hard."

The game was tied at 54 before Walker drilled consecutive 3-pointers for a 60-54 lead. Carter made a basket, but Haslem knocked down three straight jumpers as the Heat pushed the lead to 66-56 with 5:42 remaining in the third quarter.

"Antoine is there to be a psychological threat," Miami coach Pat Riley said. "Teams feel he might go on a run. Udonis was solid throughout the game defensively and in the third making shots."

The lead grew to 70-59 on Walker's basket in the lane with 4:03 left in the quarter, but Lamond Murray hit a 3-pointer and Kidd made three free throws at the end of a 12-4 spurt as the Nets pulled within 74-71 with 1:11 to go. Miami was up 76-73 after three.

The Heat didn't even need much from O'Neal, who took only 13 shots and scored 16 points. Maybe that's why forward Jason Collins thinks the Nets would be better forcing O'Neal to do more instead of double-teaming him and leaving shooters open.

"Stick with the game plan of making Shaq beat us," he said. "From Game 1 that's been the strategy. Sometimes we're able to do that and sometimes we're not."

Wade opened the fourth with a drive before the Nets scored four straight to get within one. Carter then missed two free throws, and the Nets missed three more chances to take the lead before Haslem's follow made it 80-77 with 7:38 to go.

Haslem added two more big plays down the stretch, hitting a jumper after a scramble to extend Miami's lead to 92-87 with 2:37 remaining, then hitting a pair of free throws with 1:32 left after the Nets had gotten within two.

Wade was 6-of-7 in the first quarter, capping his 12-point period with a jumper with 2.4 seconds left that gave Miami a 27-24 lead. The Heat shot 65 percent (13-for-20) in the first 12 minutes.

But they missed a chance to expand their lead much more with some poor free throw shooting in the second. They missed four of seven during a 4-minute stretch without a field goal, allowing New Jersey to tie it at 44.

Jason Williams made a 3-pointer to break the tie, and Walker added one later in the period as Miami took a 54-48 lead at halftime. The Nets were only 7-of-25 (28 percent) from the field in the second quarter and 37 percent in the first half.

Clippers 114, Suns 107

Sam Cassell loves playing in the fourth quarter, and wants the ball when the game is on the line.

After spending only 35 seconds on the court in the final period of Game 3 in the Western Conference semifinals, the 36-year-old point guard knew he'd get an opportunity in Game 4.

He got his shot, all right, and buried the Phoenix Suns.

Cassell made two 3-pointers down the stretch, including the clincher with 27 seconds left, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Suns 114-107 to even the best-of-seven series 2-2.

Game 5 is tonight in Phoenix.

Cassell played only 35 seconds in the final period two nights earlier, when the Suns edged the Clippers 94-91.

Coach Mike Dunleavy has said repeatedly since then that he didn't second-guess that decision, and Cassell concurred.

"I'm going to be a head coach in this league some day. Coaching is a feel," Cassell said. "I don't blame Coach Dunleavy. I knew in Game 4 I was going to be in the fourth quarter a lot. I didn't even worry about Game 3."

Cassell began the final period on the bench, but returned with 7:19 to play.

Cassell, who entered the postseason with more playoff experience than the rest of his teammates combined, finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

He scored only six points in Game 3, when he was usually guarded by the taller Shawn Marion. It didn't seem to matter who defended Cassell in this game, especially in the second half, when he scored 18 points.

Three-pointers by Vladimir Radmanovic and Cassell gave the Clippers what appeared to be a safe 106-93 lead with 5:54 remaining. The Suns then scored 12 straight points to move within one before Elton Brand made an 18-foot jumper with 56 seconds remaining and, after Tim Thomas missed a 3-pointer, Cassell hit his big shot.

"Last year, we would have lost at the end," said Brand, who had 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. "Sam brings swagger, Sam brought swagger tonight. We need to have it every game."

The Clippers won without starting center Chris Kaman, sidelined because of a sore right shoulder. Kaman, injured in Game 3, suited up and was available, according to a team spokesman, but never left the bench.

But the Clippers won anyway.

"Sam Cassell hit the big shots down the stretch," Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Sam can get off on anybody. Sam's been around for a long time."

Phoenix star Steve Nash was held to eight points and 11 assists. He shot 3-of-11, and didn't make a field goal after halftime.

"They're double-teaming him most every time," D'Antoni said. "We're getting shots. The other guys have got to step up and knock it down. I think he's doing his job."

Nash, the two-time league MVP, didn't agree completely.

"The way they're playing me, I'm not going to have a prolific scoring series," he said. "I've got to play a little better -- I'm not playing very well the last couple of games."

Corey Maggette had 18 points and 15 rebounds, while Radmanovic scored nine of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, and Shaun Livingston added 11 points for the Clippers.

Raja Bell led the Suns with a career playoff-high 33 points -- two more than his regular-season career best. Boris Diaw added 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists; Leonardo Barbosa added 15 points, and Marion had 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Barbosa scored the last five points of Phoenix's late 12-0 run, cutting the Clippers' lead to 106-105 with 1:12 to go. At that stage, the Clippers' big two made the two biggest plays of the game.

"Emotionally, it was a big game for us," Dunleavy said. "We didn't want to go down 3-1. Now, it's a three-game series. We have to win one in Phoenix."

Even without the 7-foot Kaman, the Clippers dominated the backboards, outrebounding the Suns 55-37.

Los Angeles outrebounded Phoenix 57-26 in winning Game 2, but just 47-46 in losing Game 3.

The Clippers shot 48.8 percent to the Suns' 45.5 percent. Phoenix committed only five turnovers to nine for Los Angeles.

Radmanovic started in Kaman's place, and Maggette replaced Quinton Ross, giving the Clippers additional scoring punch.

The Maggette-for-Ross move paid big dividends in the first half, when Maggette had 16 points and eight rebounds to spark the Clippers to a 61-51 lead.