AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Shaquille O'Neal was back, his legs improving "inch by inch," he proclaimed ominously, one of many indicators of timely fortune for the Miami Heat in its push toward a first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals.
Dwyane Wade had 36 points, O'Neal had 24 and the Heat beat the Detroit Pistons, 113-104, Sunday, taking a 2-1 edge in the Eastern Conference finals in front of 22,076 at the Palace.
This was the one Miami wanted -- needed, some would say -- because O'Neal would not again have the luxury of three days' rest in the series, which shifts to one day between games the rest of the way.
O'Neal, who has been hobbled by badly bruised thighs and averaged 18.5 points in the series' first two games, made eight of 13 shots and eight of 12 free throws Sunday.
Afterward, he spoke of the present and ditched part of a past that included Laker championship runs in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
"This is the best team I've ever been on my whole career," he said. "I've got guys sticking up for me and guys that just want to win and stick up for each other. We do what we're supposed to do."
O'Neal, who has already made known his fondness for Wade, credited Eddie Jones, who had 19 points, and role players Keyon Dooling and Rasual Butler, who combined for 16.
"It's just like a bunch of worker bees protecting the king bee," he said. "I'm not a queen bee. I'm a king bee."
O'Neal had been grouchy and curt because of his injury, his mind-set frothing over when he compared himself to the unenviable triumvirate of Greg Ostertag, Gheorghe Muresan and Shawn Bradley after Game 2.
He was more affable during and after Game 3.
He even winked toward the Piston bench after making a free throw, and why wouldn't he be carefree, with Wade adding to his own burgeoning story line with a more-than-adequate follow-up to his 40-point effort in Game 2.
O'Neal had 14 points by halftime on seven-for-eight shooting, but when the short hooks stopped falling and the flat one-handed flings weren't going, he had to beat back one of his historical nemeses.
He began to shoot free throws.
He began to make them.
In all, he hit seven of eight from the line in the final quarter, a grand accomplishment in O'Neal's world.
"Outstanding," Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Obviously, that's really key when he's knocking down free throws."
Said Wade: "I told him before the game we really needed him. He knew we needed him and this is where we needed him most, on the road in a hostile environment."
Maybe the only Miami misstep took place in the days leading up to the game, when Van Gundy told reporters that Piston fans were "nasty" and "embarrassing."
Predictably, he was booed loudly during pregame introductions and was the subject of numerous handmade signs, none of which will appear in next year's Detroit Chamber of Commerce brochure.
But the Palace began to empty with 2 minutes 32 seconds to play, neither the fans nor their signs nor Tayshaun Prince able to stop Wade a few seconds earlier as he coolly hit a 15-foot fadeaway before the shot clock expired. The Heat led, 102-93.
The Pistons didn't help their cause in the final five minutes, with Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups picking up technical fouls on separate possessions for arguing with the referees.
"We just let things get to us that shouldn't have had any effect at all," Piston Coach Larry Brown said.
The Pistons made a name for themselves by stifling O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in last season's Finals, but they allowed more than 100 points for only the second time in these playoffs. That could become more a trend than an exception if O'Neal and Wade combine again for 60 points.
The Pistons had other troubles, among them a 28-for-43 (65.1%) performance from the free-throw line.
It wasn't that Miami was so sharp in free throws, making only 38 of 54 (70.4%), but such things tend to be forgotten amid the glow of a nine-point victory.