PLAYOFF SERIES: NBA Finals; tied 2-2.
The Pistons hope to continue a remarkable turnaround and win three straight on their home floor in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season when they face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5.
Judging by the first two games of this series, which San Antonio won at home by a combined 36 points, it appeared the Pistons either didn’t have the energy or the pieces to handle Duncan’s inside presence and Ginobili’s constant slashing and scoring.
A change in defensive strategy and a return to The Palace of Auburn Hills, however, was all it took for Detroit to completely reverse the tide in the finals with two easy wins. While the series is tied at two games apiece, there is little doubt that the defending champion Pistons have all the momentum on their side now.
Detroit followed a 96-79 victory in Game 3 with an even better performance Thursday in a 102-71 rout in Game 4, the most one-sided finals victory in five years.
“We were phenomenal tonight,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said. “I really believe in all honesty this is the best game on a team I’ve been involved with at this level, this is the best we’ve played. This was a pretty special game.”
If Duncan and Ginobili, both held in check by Detroit’s relentless defense in Games 3 and 4, can’t reverse their struggles on Sunday, the Pistons might duplicate last season’s three-game sweep of the middle section of the finals— something that had never been done before Detroit beat the Lakers in three straight.
“We remember what that felt like, and we would love to do it again,” Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter said. “I don’t think it will be a lopsided game like the other four were. I think it’ll be tough, but this is what you live for, if you’re a competitor.”
After scoring 42 points on 15-for-32 shooting in the first two games, Duncan, a two-time finals MVP, has been held to 30 on 10-for-32 in the last two games. Although Duncan had 16 points and 16 rebounds in Game 4, he was never a factor and seemed emotionally spent while on the bench late in the fourth quarter.
Without Duncan’s inside game, the Spurs’ points in the paint have obviously decreased, but so has their shooting percentage from the perimeter, resulting in dismal offensive performances the last two games.
“It’s just frustrating,” Duncan said. “Especially at this time of the year and on this stage, I feel like those shots should be going down for me.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows winning without a big game from his star player will be very difficult.
“Tim has not had the greatest of games in Games 3 and 4,” he said. “He’s the center of what we do. We’re going to need something going inside with Tim to space the floor. If we don’t really have the inside out game, it takes a lot away from what we’re doing.”
The biggest change Detroit made the past two games was using several defenders on Duncan instead of relying on just one. Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and reserve Antonio McDyess have taken away the Spurs’ preference for running their offense through Duncan.
“They are very different in what they do. They throw a lot of different bodies at you, and Ben and Rasheed and Dice do so many different things,” Duncan said. “They have been effective, so yes, it does affect me. But at the same time, I believe I’ve gotten a lot of shots that on a regular basis I would knock down, and I hope to do that in the next game.”
Ginobili, who played brilliantly in Games 1 and 2, has also been shut down by the Pistons’ tenacious defense. He scored 53 points and drove the Spurs’ offense with constant slashes into the lane the first two games, but has been held to 19 points in two games at Detroit.
Besides shutting down Duncan and Ginobili, the Pistons have held the Spurs’ top six postseason scorers well below their scoring averages from the first three series, with only defensive specialist Bruce Bowen increasing his statistics. San Antonio averaged 102.2 points in the Western Conference playoffs, but has been held to 82.8 while committing 68 turnovers—25 more than Detroit—in this series.
The Pistons are bidding to become only the third team and the first since Portland in 1977 to win the NBA Finals after losing the first two games.
Since the finals went to a 2-3-2 format in 1985, six series have been tied at 2-2, and the winner of Game 5 has won the series four times. In both cases where the Game 5 loser won the series, the team had the last two games at home — the Lakers in 1988 and Houston in 1994.
Game 6 is Tuesday in San Antonio.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Spurs - 2nd seed, Western Conference; beat Denver Nuggets 4-1, first round; beat Seattle SuperSonics 4-2, conference semifinals; beat Phoenix Suns 4-1, conference finals. Pistons - 2nd seed, Eastern Conference; beat Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, first round; beat Indiana Pacers 4-2, conference semifinals; beat Miami Heat 4-3, conference finals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Spurs - Duncan, 23.5 ppg and 12.1 rpg; Parker, 4.5 apg. Pistons - Hamilton, 20.4 ppg; Ben Wallace, 11.3 rpg; Billups, 6.4 apg.