This was the moment that said it all: Tayshaun Prince, holding the ball, alone on the wing with Manu Ginobili, the early god of these NBA Finals. And Ginobili stuck a big, old Argentinean hand in front of Tayshaun’s eyes. Block his vision? That schoolyard trick? Tayshaun shook his head, then shook his shoulders, then shook his torso and his feet – Elvis getting ready to rock – and then he shook off Ginobili as surely as a Labrador shakes off a bath. Whoosh. He blew right past him for a two-handed slam.
Say good-bye to Games 1 and 2. We’re starting over now. New storyline. And here’s how this one goes: Give no quarter. Give no half. Give no easy rebound, no easy shot, no Tim on the block, no Manu down the lane.
By giving nothing to the Spurs without a hand, fist or elbow, the defending champions have risen to their feet after that initial Texas knock to the canvas. They are standing upright this morning, toe-to-toe, their blood drier than their opponents, beckoning with the gloves and saying, “Come on, let’s finish it.”
Three games left. Two victories needed. One team survives.
“We’re starting to play the way we need to play,” Chauncey Billups said after the 102-71 series-tying blowout Thursday night, in which seven Pistons scored in double figures. “We’re really a different team right now than we were in Game 1 and 2.”
You can say that again. Comparing those Pistons to these Pistons is like comparing Maria Callas to Marie Osmond.
Here, Thursday night was a stunning performance that erased any residue of Spurs dominance from last weekend. Rather, Game 4 started the way Game 3 ended, with Detroit running away from a bewildered San Antonio, which must really love the idea of three more days in a Birmingham hotel.
This time the Pistons didn’t need Stevie Wonder to inspire them. They sang “Isn’t She Lovely?” all night long. See it coming? How about when Ginobili was called for a foul -on the opening tip play? How about when Ben Wallace hit several jump shots to beat the shot clock? How about when Lindsey Hunter, who works so hard on defense he has a terrible shooting percentage in the playoffs, came off the bench and banged in four straight baskets? How about when Billups made such a blinding juke it left Tony Parker watching as helplessly as his (don’t say she’s his) girlfriend, Eva Longoria?
See it coming? How about the Spurs committing 18 turnovers, arguing over fouls, Gregg Popovich drawing a technical, Ginobili losing the ball like a rookie, Parker getting whistled for traveling and Tim Duncan, the only Spur who even got a “B” for effort, sitting on the bench looking like a kid whose mom forgot to pick him up at school.
They are a tightly woven unit, the Spurs, but their seams loosened Thursday night. This is unraveled for them. Unraveled back to a pile of thread, just like the Pistons now, each team waiting to stitch its final tapestry.
Three games left. Two victories needed. One team survives.
Defense, defense, defense
A moment here to describe the Pistons’ interior defense. Five words come to mind:
Strip, rip, pull, poke, strip.
OK, so we said strip twice. It happened a lot. From Duncan to Robert Horry to Nazr Mohammed to Ginobili or Parker, anyone who dared to try the paint rarely came through it with the ball. The Pistons had 13 steals and six blocks. That doesn’t count the poke-aways that luckily came back to the Spurs. Detroit held Duncan to 5-for-17 shooting.
“That’s what we do,” Billups said. “Us guards always feel like we can pressure because we’ve got the most athletic and quickest big men in the league. People think when they get by myself or Rip or Tay that it’s going to be an uncontested lay-up, like in the first two games. Now we’re back to ourselves again.”
And this is how Detroit wins, defense, defense, leading to offense. And it’s nice the country has now had a chance to see it. The Pistons shared the ball the way they shared the burden. And they kept the pressure coming, as if slowly turning the heat up on a burner.
As a result, it looked easy. It wasn’t easy. But it was effort, execution, excellence and a lot of other e-words.
In their two losses, the Pistons won one quarter – total.
In their two victories, they’ve won seven out of eight.
“Trust me,” Joe Dumars had said before this game, “the Spurs are gonna come back and play better” than in Game 3. “I expect this to be the best game of the series, I really do.”
Well. It was the best game – if you’re the Pistons’ president of basketball operations.
A really big game on Sunday
“How do you explain such a turnaround from the first two games to these two?” Larry Brown, the Pistons’ coach, was asked.
“Good coaching,” he said.
He was kidding. I think.
But having said that, let’s keep this all in perspective. Before Game 4, someone had asked Rasheed Wallace about his team’s mood after the cruising Game 3 victory:
“We’re not sitting up here jumping for joy,” he said. “We still have to go out there and try to accomplish what we did last night.”
Take that quote and reprint it. Because, despite the euphoria (another e-word), this all goes for naught if the Pistons don’t win Game 5 on Sunday night. We have said all along, Detroit needs to return to San Antonio up, 3-2, in order to have a shot at the title. That doesn’t take away from the blowout Thursday night (by the way, I think Hunter just hit another jumper).
But it does keep it in perspective. One game is one game. You don’t get extra points for reaching 100.
But you do get momentum. And the fact that the next game is also in the Palace, with Kid Rock scheduled for the national anthem, suggests that momentum is clearly wearing a red-and-blue wig right now.
“We just played great tonight,” Brown said. “Pop and I were walking out. He knows how we felt the first two games and now I know how he felt. We were phenomenal tonight.”
Down one hall, the Pistons were taking off their jerseys and looking forward to congratulations from their friends and family. Down the other hall, the Spurs were talking off their jerseys and thinking about the long three days ahead of them on the road. A few hours later, all these men, Pistons and Spurs, would be sleeping in different places, but their dreams would be variations on a theme.
The theme now is simple: Who wants it more? Forget the blowouts. Forget what has been. They are eye-to-eye now, chin-to-chin, breath-to-breath.
Three left. Two needed. One survives.
Go to your corners.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign Father’s Day copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Borders in Birmingham, 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Northville and 4:30 p.m. at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.