Marty Burns
Monday May 23rd, 2005

Eastern Conference Breakdown
SI.com's Marty Burns breaks down the matchups in the Eastern Conference Finals
Center
Miami Heat
Shaquille
O'Neal
vs. Detroit Pistons
Ben
Wallace
Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal
Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
In Shaquille O'Neal, the Heat have the game's most dominant player. But the 7-foot-1, 340-pound behemoth hasn't played since Game 2 of the Wizards series because of a bruised right thigh and his availability for the Eastern finals was still shrouded in mystery as of Sunday. Assuming he plays, Shaq gives the Heat a low-post monster on offense and a shot-altering presence on defense. While the Pistons won't necessarily double-team him, they will have to pay attention to him and that will open things up for the rest of the Heat shooters. Though undersized for a center at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, Ben Wallace is a force on defense and the boards. He and the taller Rasheed Wallace will make Shaq work for everything. Ben Wallace did a great job in last year's Finals keeping Shaq from shooting over him, and as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he might get a little more leeway from the refs to bang with Shaq. But Big Ben is limited offensively, meaning he must convert put-backs and offensive boards when he gets the chance to help offset Shaq's production.
Edge: Heat
Power Forward
Miami Heat
Udonis
Haslem
vs. Detroit Pistons
Rasheed
Wallace
Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace
Elsa/Getty Images
Rasheed Wallace will be a key player for the Pistons in this series. The 6-11 forward will have to use his length to help defend Shaq inside and provide some low-post scoring to open things up for Detroit's shooters. Wallace has played well so far in this year's postseason (14.9 points, 7.7 rebounds), but he still has a tendency to get quick fouls and to walk an emotional tightrope. He must stay in control and on the floor. Udonis Haslem might not be a household name, but he's a very effective role player for the Heat. The 6-9 second-year pro is averaging 9.6 points and 11.5 rebounds in the playoffs while playing solid defense. He has the quickness to stay out on Wallace on the perimeter, enabling Shaq to stay at home and protect the basket. Haslem's other main tasks will be to hit the offensive boards to make Detroit pay for swarming Shaq and/or Dwyane Wade, and to run the floor as much as possible for easy baskets.
Edge: Pistons
Small Forward
Miami Heat
Eddie
Jones
vs. Detroit Pistons
Tayshaun
Prince
Tayshaun Prince
Tayshaun Prince
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images
Detroit's Tayshaun Prince is one of the game's best defensive players. With his long 6-9 frame, he is almost impossible to shoot over. He also does a great job moving his feet and raiding passing lanes for steals. Prince might even be called upon to guard Wade, reprising the role he played so successfully on Kobe Bryant in last year's Finals. On offense, Prince doesn't usually score a lot, but he can go for big nights if left open. He's also dangerous in the low post, and Larry Brown won't hesitate to call his number at the end of games. Eddie Jones is a solid defender and 3-point shooter who has stepped up his game in the playoffs (15.9 points on 51.7 percent shooting). He's also a good finisher on the break. But he could have a hard time getting his shot off against Prince, so he's going to have to be very efficient in this series, knocking down opportunities when they arise. With Shaq and Wade likely to draw so much attention, Jones must provide a third scoring option.
Edge: Pistons
Shooting Guard
Miami Heat
Dwyane
Wade
vs. Detroit Pistons
Richard
Hamilton
Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade
Jesse Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
The marquee matchup of this series. Miami's Wade and Detroit's Richard Hamilton are two of the best shooting guards in the game, each capable of putting up big numbers. Wade has been sensational in the postseason, averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 8.4 assists and shooting 51.9 percent from the floor. With Shaq out of the lineup in Games 3 and 4 of the Wizards series, he took over and led the Heat to huge road wins. It's no stretch to say he's playing about as well as Bryant did when he teamed with Shaq in L.A. to win those titles. Against Hamilton, however, Wade will be forced to run all over the court and fight through a lot of screens, which could wear him down. Hamilton possesses the mid-range game to shoot over Shaq, as he proved with an effective showing during last year's Finals. But the 6-6 string bean has been bothered of late by a sore leg of his own, and he slumped during much of the Pacers series before erupting for 28 points in the Game 6 clincher. He will need to be at full strength and on his game to have a chance to offset Wade.
Edge: Heat
Point Guard
Miami Heat
Damon
Jones
vs. Detroit Pistons
Chauncey
Billups
Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups
Elsa/Getty Images
On paper, this is a mismatch for the Pistons. Chauncey Billups is one of the game's better two-way point guards, an explosive scorer who can bull his way into the lane and also defend. As the reigning Finals MVP, he has plenty of experience in big-game situations. Damon Jones is a journeyman making his first playoff appearance as a full-time starter. But Jones has shown no signs of nerves so far, averaging 15.6 points and hitting 31-of-69 shots from 3-point range (44.9 percent). The former Pistons backup won't be asked to match Billups point for point. He simply must stay in front of him on defense to limit his penetration, and then knock down open shots consistently if the Pistons leave him to double-team Shaq and/or Wade. Jones' ability to push the ball and make good decisions on the break, where the Heat are lethal, also could be a huge factor. However, Billups and the Pistons are usually very good in transition defense so Miami isn't likely to get as many points there as it did against the Nets and Wizards.
Edge: Pistons
Bench
Miami Heat
vs. Detroit Pistons
Alonzo Mourning
Alonzo Mourning
Jesse Garrabrant/NBAE via getty Images
The Heat bench is underrated and looms as a key factor in this series. Alonzo Mourning, Keyon Dooling, Rasual Butler, Christian Laettner, Michael Doleac and Shandon Anderson form a versatile and experienced corps. Mourning figures to be particularly important, especially if Shaq is limited or cannot play. The 35-year-old 'Zo has played well in the postseason (7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes), firing up the Heat and the Miami crowd with his defense, rebounding and all-around intensity. Though not as effective over long stretches, he did well filling in as a starter for Shaq in the last series. He and Dooling both must come in and provide scoring, defense and energy for Miami. The Pistons bench, though not as good as last year's version, is capable. Antonio McDyess (7.8 points, 5.3 in 19.6 minutes) gives Detroit a third quality big man to join the rotation, while guards Carlos Arroyo and Lindsey Hunter provide solid backcourt play. Elden Campbell hasn't received many minutes so far in the postseason, but the 7-footer has experience guarding Shaq and could play a key role off the bench as well.
Edge: Heat
Coach
Miami Heat
Stan
Van Gundy
vs. Detroit Pistons
Larry
Brown
Larry Brown
Larry Brown
Elsa/Getty Images
Now in his 22nd NBA season, Pistons coach Larry Brown is one of the NBA's all-time greats. He led Detroit to the NBA title last year in his first season in Motown, and has rebounded from early season health problems to get them back on track to repeat. Brown also knows how to game-plan against a Shaq-led team, having led the Sixers (2001) and Pistons ('04) against him in the Finals. Heat coach Stan Van Gundy is only in his second season, but has already established himself as one of the better young coaches in the game. He guided the Heat to the best record in the East during the regular season, and calmly navigated them through Shaq's health issues in the last series against the Wizards. Van Gundy surely knows his Xs and Os, but Brown's many years of postseason experience give him the edge.
Edge: Pistons
X-Factor
Miami Heat
vs. Detroit Pistons
Elden Campbell
Elden Campbell
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
For the Heat, it's obviously Shaq's health. The self-proclaimed WMD just has not looked like himself since late in the regular season, when he went down with a stomach virus and then the bruised thigh. He is averaging just 18.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in the playoffs, down significantly from his regular-season marks of 22.9 and 10.4. He must return and be at around 80 percent or better for the Heat to have a realistic chance in this series. For the Pistons, keep an eye on Campbell. The veteran 7-footer was re-signed by the team after being waived earlier this season in large part for this series. Campbell knows Shaq well from their days together with the Lakers, and he had some success against him last year in the Finals. He might be called on again here for short bursts, especially if the Wallaces get in foul trouble.
Edge: Heat
Intangibles
Miami Heat
vs. Detroit Pistons
Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace
Elsa/Getty Images
The Heat come into this series well-rested and brimming with confidence after having swept the Nets and Wizards, respectively. They also have home-court advantage, a significant edge since they posted the NBA's second-best home record (36-5) during the regular season. But the Heat, for all their success, are still making their first postseason journey together as a group. The Pistons, on the other hand, basically have the same unit back that won the NBA title a year ago. They have been building for this moment all season. They can win on the road, as they showed in dispatching the Sixers and Pacers, respectively, earlier in these playoffs. Their main edge, however, might be their mental toughness. The Pistons have proven they can hold up in the playoff crucible, and that's something we can't say for sure yet about this Heat team.
Edge: Pistons
Bottom Line
With the unselfish Wade and more athletic role players, the Heat are a better team than last year's banged-up Finals Lakers. But we learned last year not to underestimate the Pistons. They have the defense, long bodies and winning formula to beat a Shaq-led team, especially if he's not at full strength.
Pistons in 6

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