Detroit 88, Miami 82

(even in defeat, ‘Zo is flexing)

Rasheed, Rip and Billups came up big….and the whole Distracting Larry angle may well have been the non-issue of the century (damn). Spare a thought for Mickey Arison, who comes off like a non-cuddly basketball version of Gene Autry. Miami staked the previous decade on Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning and never made it to the finals. Now, with Riley watching from the wings, a team that was built to win right now has come up short, despite holding a 3-2 lead in this series, with the decisive loss coming on their home floor.

No team with Dwayne Wade (20 points) and Shaq (a game high 27) should be considered a non-factor next year, but for all the talk earlier this season about the East being wide open for O’Neal, the Pistons persevered. From their sluggish start, to the Auburn Hills riot to Larrygate, self-styled experts (present company especially) kept inventing fantasy scenarios where someone else would represent the lunchpail conference. In the end, however, neither Miami’s addition of O’Neal, nor the Sixers and Celtics’ deadline deals, meant anything compared to the way Detroit’s starting five worked together — witness the way they outrebounded Miami last night, and the sort of poise they showed in the final minutes.

Had Wade been available for Game 6 or at full strength for Game 7, you’ve got to assume that Miami would’ve advanced. Not that I’m complaining — San Antonio/Detroit should be a fascinating pairing, and this finale was no slouch, either. Anytime Darko Milicic, Michael Doleac and Christian Lattener all end up with a DNP, the viewing public wins, regardless of the score.