MIAMI (AP) – This is why Antoine Walker came to Miami.

He knew his days as an NBA headliner would conceivably end here, where he’d be third fiddle behind Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. No more averaging 20 points or playing 40 minutes per game. He’d have to transform from star player to role player.

Fortunately for the Heat, Walker seems to finally figured it out – at the perfect time. Now, he’s headed to the conference-final round for the second time in his 10-year career, after back-to-back stellar efforts helped the Heat oust the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“Without him, we don’t win,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “We don’t move on to the Eastern Conference finals without Antoine.”

Walker had 23 points in the Heat’s 106-105 series-clinching win in Game 5 over the Nets on Tuesday, including the backbreaker – a 3-pointer with 1:56 left after New Jersey elected to double-team Wade and left him alone in the right corner. His tippy-toe shot splashed through, Miami’s final basket of the night.

“Like I’ve said before, this is a team,” said Walker, who reached the 2002 East finals with the Boston Celtics – who were beaten by the Nets. “No matter who does it, how it comes, how we win, we’re trying to get 16 wins. And we’ve got eight of them so far. Just got to keep going.”

They’ll keep going against either Detroit or Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, which won’t begin before Sunday. The Heat began taking advantage of that time off Wednesday, getting in a day of rest after playing the Nets five times in a nine-day stretch.

“I need one day away from basketball right now,” Walker said.

He might not want to stay away too long.

Walker had 20 points in Miami’s Game 4 win at New Jersey, meaning he’s had consecutive 20-point efforts for the second time this season. The first was way back in November, ending a season-opening nine-game run where Walker was averaging nearly 17 points while making about half his shots.

It was largely downhill from there, with Walker shooting only 43 percent the rest of the season – including one awful 10-game stretch of 29 percent from Nov. 25 through Dec. 11. But now, he’s clearly one of the Heat’s most important cogs.

“You’ve got to give Antoine Walker a lot of credit,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. “He was big in all their wins. We wish them the best of luck as they advance.”

High praise, and seems deserved.

Walker was the star of Riley’s offseason shake-up a year ago, the biggest pawn in a series of bold moves the Heat made with designs on an NBA title. He came in, along with James Posey, Jason Williams and Gary Payton; gone were starters Eddie Jones and Damon Jones, plus several backups from last year’s 59-win club.

For long stretches this season, the question that hung over this franchise like ominous rain clouds on a South Florida afternoon was this: “Did Riley tinker too much with a good thing?”

Given the way the Heat – especially Walker – has played of late, the answer may very well be “no.”

“It’s just the nature of our business,” Riley said. “Everything is judged on the present moment, today. We couldn’t win a championship in December because they don’t play for it then. But if you’re not looking like a championship team then your team, at least our team, was judged pretty harshly.”

Walker averaged career-lows this season in points (12.2), rebounds (5.1), assists (2.0) and minutes (26.8). He was often lustily booed by home fans, who quickly grew tired of his penchant of driving toward the basket, defenders draped all around him, and forcing the occasional ill-advised shot.

These days, they cheer his every move, as do his teammates. O’Neal proudly points out that he tabbed Walker as “the missing link” for the Heat before the postseason began, and that, so far, he’s lived up to the billing.

“We knew that we could get here if we did everything right,” O’Neal said. “So far, we’ve been playing at a high level, been playing pretty good. I’m going to keep talking to the guys, Pat’s going to keep encouraging guys. It’s not over yet. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

AP-ES-05-17-06 1638EDT