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ON BASKETBALL

Series changed in a flash

MIAMI -- It was hard to tell who had the better night Wednesday, Dwyane Wade or Carrie Underwood. While much of the Wade-aged generation checked out the ''American Idol" finale, the 23-year-old manchild himself was in the process of personally reviving the Miami Heat and, for the time being, anyway, making the Eastern Conference finals a competitive series.

But here's a sobering thought for the Heat to ponder as they prepare for the next two games in The Palace of Auburn Hills Sunday and Tuesday: Do they need a similarly scintillating performance from Wade, such as the one he delivered in Game 2, to have a chance to win? Because if you're the Detroit Pistons, you look back on Game 2 and how wretchedly you played and how you were still very much alive, on the road, in the final minutes.

Wade had 40 points. Shaquille O'Neal, dragging his sore right leg like a ball and chain, had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Alonzo Mourning had four blocks. Damon Jones had 14 points. Christian Laettner was even exhumed and played a very serviceable 12 minutes.

And had Rasheed Wallace knocked down a wide-open trey with 99 seconds left, the game would have been tied. The Pistons might then have found a way to win a game in which they shot poorly (38 percent), missed a ton of free throws (eight, with Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups boinging five), and played a second quarter right out of the Providence Steamrollers. Billups had eight turnovers in the first half alone.

''Hopefully, we'll give ourselves a chance to win at home," mused Detroit coach Larry Brown. ''I didn't think this series was over after Game 1. I thought we'd have to play our best to win [Game 2] and we came up a little short. But we still had a chance to win the game at the end."

That they did. Maybe that's why the Pistons weren't all that cranky after the game. Detroit is far from automatic at the Palace and can toss up quarters like the second period in Game 2 (13 points, 5 baskets, 6 turnovers) anywhere (see: Eastern Conference finals, 2004). The mere thought of them coming back from a 14-point deficit, which they did in Game 2, is almost mind-boggling. But they also have more guys capable of coming up big down the stretch than Miami does. With Shaq ailing, Miami has, basically, one guy. He was enough in Game 2.

You didn't hear Shaq bellyache afterward about not getting the ball down the stretch. He took four shots in the fourth quarter, 10 fewer than the teammate he calls ''Flash." That's because Wade was scoring from everywhere -- 10 straight points at one stretch -- and basically willing the Heat to the win. That his performance followed up a stinker in Game 1 (16 points on a Kobe-esque 7 for 25) spoke a lot about the kid who, as Keith Jackson might say, is still only a soph-o-more.

''As great as he has been, you tend to forget that this is still just a second-year guy," said Miami coach Stan Van Gundy. ''As much as we need him, and as much as we expect out of him, he can't carry the weight of our whole team on his shoulders. He can't be expected to dominate every night. This is a second-year guy who's still trying to learn a lot."

Wade took the Game 1 performance to heart. He hit the film room. He called his high school coach and his college coach. He chatted with Heat boss Pat Riley, who has seen a few playoff ups and downs over the years. ''They all said the same thing," Wade said. ''Everyone has bad games. It's how you respond to them."

Shaq and Mourning stopped by Wade's crib earlier in the day and took him for a ride, pumping him up in the process. The notoriously nocturnal Shaq then followed up with an obscenely early phone call (3:45 a.m., according to Wade) for yet another pick-me-up. ''I thought he was crazy," Wade admitted.

Said Shaq, ''I was up. I was watching ESPN and he was taking a lot of heat, so I just wanted to call and I wanted my voice to be the last thing he heard before he went to sleep."

Or the last thing he heard before he went back to sleep.

Back when they were relatively civil, O'Neal and Kobe Bryant used to exchange phone calls at seemingly ridiculous hours to contemplate the activity that lay ahead. It worked most of the time. Then, they stopped talking and the Lakers stopped winning.

Wade responded as only he might have possibly envisioned. Until this year, no player in Miami Heat history had scored more than 38 points in a playoff game. Wade has already done it twice, lighting up the Wizards for 42 in that series' clinching game and then erupting for 40 Wednesday, which he climaxed with a breakaway dunk with one second left.

You get the feeling that Miami is going to need more of these kinds of games from Wade. You also get the feeling that Brown and the Pistons will do what's necessary to make that very, very difficult. They are, after all, still the NBA champs.


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