SAN ANTONIO – They took every stone the devil could throw, and they caught the last one and threw it back in his face. It took history. It took belief. It took desperation in every dribble. But mostly it took hope, and with every Pistons achievement – every Rip Hamilton jumper, every Rasheed Wallace put-back, every Ben Wallace block, every Chauncey Billups three-pointer – there was hope. They were supposed to die, because that’s what teams do when faced with silly odds. But here they were at the end, heading off the floor with one more game to play.
Dead men walking.
And slamming. And blocking. And jamming. And stealing. And staying – staying put, staying alive, staying in Texas for one last game to settle the kingdom.
Put down that bugle. Hold off the eulogy. In any and every way you can push a series to its limit, the Pistons now have done it. On the first day of summer, they held off the setting sun, and became the first team in history to win Game 6 in the NBA Finals on the road and force a Game 7 there to decide it. The score was 95-86.
But the real score was Desperation 1, Expiration 0.
“A lot of people thought we were out,” Rasheed Wallace told ABC-TV after the series-tying victory. “They had their Cristal (champagne) ready. But we’ll be here Thursday.”
They made sure of it Tuesday night. They did it by coming out hard and never letting up. They did it with a stifling defense and a blow-for-blow offense. They did it with deadeye shooting. They did it with hustle and second-chance plays, and they did it by defying injury, foul trouble and the unending brilliance of Manu Ginobili (21 points, 10 rebounds), who almost won this thing by himself. But he is a man. And this is a team.
And the team is still here.
Dead men breathing.
A game for the ages
What a game! It was like 48 minutes of sprinting, 48 minutes without gulping a breath.
Here was Ben Wallace taking a lob from Tayshaun Prince and ramming it halfway to Mexico. Here was Billups, on a night when every point was critical, cranking up the fattest baskets possible, hitting an amazing five treys for 21 points. Here was Hamilton, finding his jumper when they needed it most, leading the team with 23 points. Here was Prince, playing at a different level, one-hand slamming, floating down the lane, grabbing precious rebounds when they were most needed.
Here was Rasheed Wallace, coming off the self-described “bonehead” play of Game 5, surviving five fouls to come back late for key baskets and a key steal in the final two minutes.
As a result, there were be a seventh game in the NBA Finals for the first time in 11 years. All the things that defined the Pistons’ championship last year were on display in what could have been their last game Tuesday night.
“We’re just tough, man,” Billups told the TV crew. “We’re tough as nails. We always find a way to climb out of that foxhole.”
And San Antonio has to crawl back in it. How ready were the Spurs for a victory? Not only had a parade been planned for Thursday (a fact that made the Pistons’ locker-room blackboard) but in the lower-level hallways of the SBC Center there were stacks of newly printed T-shirts that read “San Antonio Spurs, NBA Champions, 2005.” There were hundreds of them, ready for use, intended for the party that was coming once the Spurs buried the Pistons.
And then the game was played.
Oh, yeah. Forgot about that. One night to go
“This is what our team is about,” coach Larry Brown said. “I’ve been with these guys for two years, and they don’t disappoint me in terms of their desire to win.”
Tuesday marked Brown’s 100th career playoff victory. In a building where the Pistons had not scored 80 points this season, they scored 95. In a town where they hadn’t won a game in eight years, they won a game when it mattered most. This is what they do. They break the mold.
“Can you talk about what it means to force a Game 7?” someone asked Billups.
“Yeah. It means everything. We go back to the hotel instead of the airplane.”
Admit it. You didn’t expect this, did you? You thought the specter of winning two games in this town would weigh like a metal jacket. You thought the Pistons would fold. You thought the Spurs would ride the home court to victory. You thought it – or somebody you knew thought it.
What matters is that the Pistons didn’t think it. Whatever the outcome of this down-to-one-game Finals, Detroit already has established some kind of record for resiliency. The Pistons came back against Indiana. They came back against Miami – and won Game 7 on the road. They’ve now come back twice against the Spurs and whittled the season to a single night, 48 minutes of basketball, that suddenly seems impervious to location.
Sure, the Pistons dig their own holes sometimes. But there is more heart in this team than in a zoo full of lions. How astounding was this? Consider this: The last time the Pistons won a road game in this town – of any kind – Grant Hill had a triple-double.
You remember Grant Hill, right, kids?
Ask your older brother.
Meanwhile, to paraphrase Langston Hughes: What happens to a defeat deferred? Does it dry up sweet like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and run? Who is more affected by this game? Do the Spurs rack themselves silly for a wasted chance? Are they pushed to the wall of what might have been? Do they come back harder in Game 7?
And the Pistons? Did they leave it all on the floor Tuesday night? Or will they find even greater spirit now that the season, the series and the title defense is shrunken to a single frame?
Time will tell. But no matter what happens, the Pistons already have delivered an amazing trunk full of memories, one that glows with the aura of an indomitable spirit. And here’s a nice little stat: The last 10 times the Pistons have had one game to win a series they have gotten it done.
Chew on that for the next 24 hours. Thursday will come soon enough. For now, remember Tuesday, when summer began and basketball didn’t end. The Pistons are defying critics, trends, analysts – even the calendar. And that sound you hear is a hopeful heartbeat, thumping like a basketball.
This is kind of fun, isn’t it?
Series tied, 3-3 Game at 9 p.m. on ABC
GAME 1 L San Antonio 84, Detroit 69
GAME 2 L San Antonio 97, Detroit 76
GAME 3 W Detroit 96, San Antonio 79
GAME 4 W Detroit 102, San Antonio 71
GAME 5 L San Antonio 96, Detroit 95 (OT)
GAME 6 W Detroit 95, San Antonio 86
Game 7 Thursday at San Antonio
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. 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.