Shaq, Heat a Step Away

MIAMI — That could be it for the Detroit Pistons.

The two-time defending Eastern Conference champions are frayed, fractured and just about finished after Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat scorched them again Monday night, 89-78, in Game 4 of the conference finals.

The Heat, trying to reach the NBA Finals for the first time, leads the best-of-seven series, 3-1, and can end it Wednesday night at Auburn Hills, Mich.

A year ago, the Heat led the Pistons in the Eastern finals, 3-2, before losing Games 6 and 7, the last at Miami, but these are not the same Pistons.

Their defense, the hallmark of their 2004 title run and return trip to the Finals a year ago, has deserted them at the most inopportune time, the Heat having made 56.3%, 58.2% and 54.9% of its shots in its three victories in the series.

The NBA's best team during the regular season, the Pistons have lost six of their last nine playoff games and, on the eve of Game 4, Ben Wallace grumbled that defense had not been stressed as much under first-year Coach Flip Saunders as it had been under his predecessor, Larry Brown.

"I don't agree with what Ben says," Saunders said before the game, addressing his team's general irritability. "We all know how Ben gets at times."

The Pistons have been especially defenseless against Wade, who has made 69.4% of his shots and is averaging 30.8 points a game in the series.

"He's playing extremely well and we need every ounce of the energy he brings," Heat Coach Pat Riley said after Wade scored 31 points Monday, making eight of 11 shots and 15 of 19 free throws.

"His talent is huge."

Said Saunders, equally impressed: "Wade was phenomenal."

Shaquille O'Neal, on the verge of reaching the Finals with a third team after advancing previously with the Lakers and Orlando Magic, scored 21 points and took nine rebounds, then said he was more than happy to defer to his teammate.

"It's a different role for me, playing with the great Dwyane Wade," said O'Neal, who made eight of 12 shots and has connected on 61.8% in the series, averaging 20.8 points, "but it's a role that I've accepted. …

"It's my job to make him the best player to ever play the game before I leave. I think I have the ability to do that, and I think he has the ability to become that."

Wade was at his most spectacular in the fourth quarter.

The Pistons, who overcame a 14-point second-quarter deficit to take the lead in the third quarter before falling behind again, had closed the gap to 62-61 in the opening minute of the fourth.

Wade drove hard through the lane and was fouled as he flew toward the basket, flicking the ball up over his head and into the hoop as he crashed to the floor. A free throw completed the three-point play, making the score 65-61.

Moments later, he took a pass near the left sideline in front of the Heat bench with the shot clock running down. Replays showed that Richard Hamilton hit his arm as he rose to shoot, but Wade made the shot anyway and the Heat led, 69-63.

The Pistons, teetering again, were finished for the night.

And for the series?

"The toughness on the defensive end that we bring all the time hasn't been there lately," said Tayshaun Prince, who led the Pistons with 15 points.

Prince, though, said he didn't believe that the Pistons were splintering, or that the players had lost faith in their coach.

"Miami is playing better," he said. "That's the problem."