MIAMI - They will wonder about the "could-have-beens." They will ponder the "what-ifs." In the end, a season of incredible accomplishment and unprecedented joy will be haunted by heartache for the Miami Heat.
In the final two minutes of the game, the Pistons outscored the Heat 12-4, turning a one-point deficit into an 88-82 victory, claiming the Eastern Conference finals, four games to three, and earning a return trip to the Finals, where they will defend their 2004 title against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Heat took the court hampered by injury, Wade's strained right rib-cage muscle just the most prominent ailment on an injury list that included a bruised thigh and a bad heel, a bum finger and a gimpy ankle.
The Pistons started the game hindered by history, trying to become the first team to win a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on the road since the 1982 Philadelphia 76ers knocked off the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden.
Neither team was willing to go down easy.
O'Neal finished with a game-high 27 points. Wade, whose game is usually characterized by quick stops and hard cuts, scored 20 points despite playing a considerably less precise game.
"He had a lot of trouble getting going," Miami coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Indeed, Wade finished the first half with just eight points. But after Wade had a big third quarter, scoring 12, the Pistons held him scoreless the rest of the way.
Could a healthy Wade have altered the outcome of the series? That, said Van Gundy, was immaterial.
A sports fan in his own right, Van Gundy said he could go back several years and name NBA and World Series champions, "but I can't tell you who was hurt, who wasn't. Nobody cares.
"I give [my team] a lot of credit for what they fought through, but I'm not making any excuses. The Detroit Pistons played better than us, particularly down the stretch. They deserve to move on to the NBA Finals, and that's the way it is."
The Pistons came out of the gate slowly, trailing by as many as six in the first quarter. Richard Hamilton got Detroit going in the second quarter, shooting 4-for-6 from the field and scoring eight points as he led the Pistons to a 45-40 halftime lead.
Hamilton finished with a team-high 22 points. Rasheed Wallace scored 20 and Chauncey Billups added 18.
"We've been through a lot together, and it's an unbelievable reward when you can handle situations like this and show poise and toughness," Detroit coach Larry Brown said. "You know, when you coach ... you're blessed when you have a group like that."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Detroit vs. San Antonio
Game 1: At San Antonio, 9 p.m.
Thursday, chs. 2, 7