AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – He had already gotten into it with Stanislav Medvedenko. He already had flung his headband 15 rows into the Palace crowd. He even had hollered a few times at the officials.
The signs were there. A Rasheed Wallace trademark meltdown was what, one offensive foul, one Ukrainian elbow away from shaking the NBA finals?
Instead, the fourth quarter of the fourth game is the moment when Wallace's immense potential finally paid off. He had 10 of his team-high 26 points and two of his team-high 13 rebounds in the quarter, all while playing hawkish defense.
With each clutch shot and board, Wallace twisted the knife in the reeling, raging Los Angeles Lakers.
The Detroit Pistons, up 3-1 thanks to an 88-80 victory here on Sunday, will play for the title on Tuesday and are set to spring arguably the greatest NBA finals upset since Golden State bested the Washington Bullets in 1975.
And the guy Portland gave up on, half the league shied away from and probably no one truly understands was a critical part of it.
"I'm really proud of him," Pistons coach Larry Brown said in the aftermath of Sunday's win.
With his size, strength, speed and shot, there is no reason Rasheed Wallace couldn't take over most games.
But there is always something – problems with the refs, space cadet stretches, head games he doesn't win – in Wallace's way.
When the Pistons acquired the emotional power forward at the trading deadline it was for a night just like this, when Wallace finally put it all together. He took advantage of Karl Malone's injury and dominated the most critical game of this series.
Like a disinterested student suddenly pulling straight A's, this is what everyone begs of Wallace. A double-double in the final, his greatest moment in basketball. …
"No, not at all," Wallace said. "Not in my opinion."
Then what was?
"You know, games in the past that were bigger than this."
You can't take Wallace seriously. He has never played in a bigger game, let alone played this well. Second, he said it while wearing ridiculous oversized headphones over his temples during his postgame media session.
But that's Rasheed, isn't it? The guy is part comedy, part charisma, part competitor.
You never know what you'll get. After all, Wallace was about one more push to Medvedenko during a post-whistle scrum from getting thrown out of a game he'd go on to dominate.
"You know, he threw a little elbow shot, which is cool by me," Wallace said. "All that extracurricular stuff can be handled [in the hallway]."
A loading dock brawl at the NBA finals isn't likely, of course. But considering we are talking about Wallace, it can't entirely be ruled out either.
Detroit is dominating this series because each game – heck, each quarter – someone new seems to step up. The Lakers have the opposite problem. L.A. got an inspired performance Sunday from Shaquille O'Neal (36 points, 20 rebounds) but Kobe Bryant couldn't throw it in a Great Lake (8 of 25) and, once again, no one else threatened to break double figures.
The Pistons have been the better team throughout this series even though Wallace, arguably their most talented player, has spent most of it in foul trouble. But with Malone limited to 21 minutes due to his bum knee, Wallace was able to avoid foul trouble and get into an offensive rhythm.
Instead of melting down when things got emotional, Wallace channeled his energy and hit four of six shots in the fourth quarter and broke open the game.
"We are just tough to play when we can get 'Sheed going like that," Chauncey Billups said.
Just about everyone knows that. Which is why Brown is constantly trying to harness his game, why the Piston fans cheer his good plays the loudest, why opponents try to unnerve him.
He can quickly go from terrific to temperamental.
And vice versa.
- Rasheed Wallace