MIAMI (AP) – The defending champions kept finding mismatches and exploiting them. The challengers kept finding themselves playing from behind, and they simply couldn’t cope.

Whether it was Tayshaun Prince outsizing Dwyane Wade, Rasheed Wallace taking his man outside or Chauncey Billups getting the better of Damon Jones, the Detroit Pistons played calmly and intelligently for 48 minutes and defeated the Miami Heat 90-81 Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Miami had Shaquille O’Neal back in its lineup after waiting almost until tip-off to find out whether he could play on his bruised right thigh, and he opened the game by making his first four shots.

But Detroit’s defense kept the Heat from running their offense through O’Neal for the rest of the game, and the big man wasn’t all that much of a factor while scoring 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting with five rebounds.

Wade also wasn’t much of a factor for the Heat, scoring just 16 points on 7-for-25 shooting while being frustrated for much of the night by Prince’s defense.

Rasheed Wallace scored 20 points, Billups added 18, Richard Hamilton had 16, and Ben Wallace and Prince each scored 13 as all five Detroit starters reached double figures.

The loss was the first for the Heat in nine postseason games, and their first of any kind since April 15. Coming off nine days of rest since they finished off the Washington Wizards in the second round, the Heat were far from sharp and not all that smart with their shot selection.

O’Neal’s foul shot with 4:36 remaining was Miami’s final point.

“We didn’t shut them down. We just wanted it a little bit more,” Rasheed Wallace said. “There’s no homecourt advantage just like with Indiana. We still have to go out and play. We have one more here.”

Ben Wallace was the catalyst as the Pistons started to break the game open early in the third quarter.

After hitting a 12-footer and then drawing O’Neal’s first foul, Wallace was left wide open for an 18-foot jumper that he also knocked down.

He then stole the ball from O’Neal in the low post, leading to a possession on which Prince was isolated against Wade on the left wing and worked his way inside for a short bank shot. Wade turned to his bench after the shot and gave a dejected, helpless look. Ben Wallace then blocked a jumper by Udonis Haslem as the 24-second shot clock was about to expire, and Rasheed Wallace hit a 15-footer to make it 52-43. The jitters really started to get to the Heat after that, their possessions looking more panicked and never getting better.

Miami finally caught the Pistons with a 9-0 run that tied it at 80 with 5:10 left, but Detroit calmly went back to what had been working. In this case, the Pistons decided to test Jones’ ability to defend Billups – and quickly discovered he couldn’t.

Billups backed down Jones and scored easily to make it 82-80, then used a quick first step to get past Jones for a mid-range jumper that upped the lead to three.

Miami stayed in it as Detroit missed shots on three consecutive possessions, but that stretch ended when Rasheed Wallace blocked a jumper by Haslem and saved the ball from going out of bounds, leading to a jumper off a screen by Hamilton that made it 86-81 with 1:19 left.

Billups’ jumper with 17 seconds left ended all doubt.

O’Neal, defended in single coverage by Ben Wallace, made his first four shots before going to the bench with 6:36 left in the first quarter with the Heat ahead 15-13. Rasheed Wallace went 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the quarter.

, which ended with Miami ahead 25-24.

Wade had trouble freeing himself from Prince early in the game, and when he found himself being guarded by Hamilton in the second quarter he seemed to be trying to do too much. Wade missed three consecutive shots – one a layup – late in the second quarter to drop to 2-for-12 from the field, and Billups gave Detroit its biggest lead of the game to that point on a 3-pointer from the corner that put the Pistons ahead 42-37.

Miami came back and scored the next six points before Ben Wallace put back his own miss to give the Pistons a 44-43 halftime lead.

Notes: Haslem, who dislocated his left middle finger at practice Sunday, aggravated the injury late in the third quarter. He went to the bench, and the crowd cheered as coach Stan Van Gundy made the rare move of sending Alonzo Mourning in to play alongside O’Neal. … Billups and Jones, both strong foul shooters, each missed a free throw following defensive 3-second technical fouls in the first half.

AP-ES-05-23-05 2303EDT


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