SLAM ANTONIO

In basketball, somewhere between heaven and hell lies heart. The Pistons wore their hearts on their bare, muscled arms Tuesday night, and, as a result, they are a bit farther from the warm spot this morning. They began like a cornered animal, they ended like a runaway lion. Call it ferocity, call it focus. Or call it fate. Because when Stevie Wonder does the national anthem, does Detroit have any choice but to win?

They just called to say it’s not over.

And Ben Wallace was doing the dialing. The noise was up, the crowd was up and, most importantly, his hair was up. Going with the ‘Fro, Wallace broke out of his funk and led a protracted effort that was hardly easy but ultimately effective, a 96-79 victory in Game 3. It took everybody in the end. But it took Wallace in the beginning.

“He won the game,” Chauncey Billups said afterward. “I mean, he really did. He was unbelievable tonight.”

Wallace was the Terminator in shorts. He stole the first pass of the game and went all the way for a dunk. That set the tone. He demolished a Tim Duncan shot an inch after it left Duncan’s hands. He crushed a Tony Parker shot and left Parker holding his ribs. He put back shots. He drew offensive fouls. He came out of nowhere to pin a shot against the glass.

In the first 10 minutes of action, Big Ben had five blocks. Five blocks? He finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and a Richter scale impact. A TV reporter said Wallace’s wife, Chanda, had scolded him about his performance after Game 2. Hey. If the henpecked-husband thing works, go for it.

Because here was a night where the scoreboard read “Game 3” but the subtitle read “The Series.” Pistons lose Tuesday, it’s an academic exercise. And basketball, this type, is not played in the classroom. It was physical all night, and while the Pistons do many things well, they do physical great. With the referees being more generous than in recent games, “Detroit muscle” was more than just a phrase. It was a game summary.

“That’s how Detroit plays,” Parker told ABC at halftime, having just taken an arm to the mouth.

Yes, it is, Tony. Welcome to our fair city.

Here’s an ice pack.

Palace guards do their thing

It was Stevie Wonder who once sang, “If it’s magic, then why can’t it be everlasting?”

The Pistons can only hope their magic Tuesday has the staying power they always have shown. Because, while it might surprise some Spurs observers, this is how the Pistons look to those of us who watch them often.

We are used to seeing the Pistons guards, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, play the way they did Tuesday. Hamilton got his groove back, curling and shooting, defying Bruce Bowen’s defense. He finished with 24 points and had some beautiful fast breaks and lobs. Billups, who had 20 points, was his typical assassin self, waiting for the most opportune moments to fire his daggers from downtown and hitting a beautiful reverse lay-up past Duncan for a big fourth-quarter lead.

We are used to the big-man game being led by Rasheed Wallace, who had a controlled performance inside, and Tayshaun Prince, who seemed to gain 10 pounds since the last game, and filled up his gas tank as well. We are used to Antonio McDyess, who gave some major minutes (12 points and nine rebounds) and defense on Duncan.

And then, of course, there was Ben Wallace.

“He was fantastic,” said Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach.

“He was great,” added Duncan.

And they’re with San Antonio!

But the truth is the truth. Wallace was all over this game. He was slamming. He was doing put-backs. He broke the 10-rebound mark for the first time this series – by the third quarter. We have long said that while all the Pistons need to show energy, Ben’s is the most contagious.

“It was a great feeling” in the locker room before the game, Wallace said. “Everybody’s spirits were high. … I thought that was big. Get everybody relaxed, go out there and realized it’s all about basketball.”

And it was all about Ben.

Signed, sealed, delivered, it’s theirs.

And people should not be shocked. For one thing, the Pistons didn’t get to these NBA Finals by being blown out night after night. There were explanations for their two bad defeats in Games 1 and 2. Simple version: They didn’t hit their shots. More complicated: They didn’t contend on defense.

They did both things well Tuesday night. And, let’s be blunt, San Antonio came back to Earth, too. Basketball is a game of ebb and flow, and excellence is a fickle lover. Take Manu Ginobili. If the NBA had a Nobel Peace Prize, it would have given it to him after his first two games. He could do no wrong. It’s a good thing they already picked a new pope, because by Tuesday, Ginobili was a contender.

But then came Game 3. Ginobili was out in the first two minutes, having injured himself by slamming into Tayshaun Prince on an offensive foul. He limped to the bench. One night, the pope. Next night, the pauper. Ginobili returned, but his night was cruelly mortal: just 2-for-6 shooting.

So he can be stopped. So can Duncan, who missed 10 of 15 shots.

And so, apparently, can the Spurs.

Time for all the insight

Now among the things you have to fight in an NBA Finals is instant analysis. Everyone wants to predict the outcome – after one game, after two games. Too much time, too many journalists.

So the obvious pick, after two shellackings, was “San Antonio in a walk.” The Spurs were deeper. The Spurs were stronger. They shot better, passed better and defended better. They had the Pistons out of sync.

Oh, and the refs. The referees were messing with Detroit’s heads. Based on the journalistic psychoanalysis, you would have thought that every time a Piston went to shoot, a ref blew his whistle in his ear.

Well, now three games have been played. And the instant analysis will swing in a different direction: Now the Pistons can beat the Spurs if they put in a full effort. Now the Spurs can’t count every night on Ginobili. Now the Pistons’ most powerful big man is a force to be reckoned with, too.

Is it right? Who knows? That’s why they play the games. Many called the Spurs brilliant in Games 1 and 2. But brilliance is as brilliance does, and the shine was on the Detroit side of the Mason-Dixon Line Tuesday night.

So that’s one of three. That’s four quarters out of a dozen. That’s 48 minutes out of 144 needed. It’s not a victory, it’s stage one of a three-stage test. Because if the Pistons drop any of these home games, they’ll lose the series, and no one will care about this performance.

They care this morning. They’re smiling this morning. And I’m betting Ben’s wife is going a little easier on him, too.

They just called to say it’s not over.

What’s Stevie doing Thursday night?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. 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.

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