TEXAS FOLD ‘EM

SAN ANTONIO – At one point Thursday night, Rasheed Wallace fired a shot over Tim Duncan and the ball just … stopped. It literally stopped. It quit. It halted. It punched its own clock. OK, it was wedged between the rim and the backboard. Then again, it might have done that in protest. You could almost hear it say, “I’m stopping here and I’m staying here until you guys play some offense. I’m sick of getting poked around all night.”

Welcome to the NBA Finals – now strip. Strip, rip, slap, poke, block, stuff, whack and flick that ball away, so that shots are interrupted and passes are deflected and arms are interlocked and bodies are so close you can’t tell if that sweat on your forehead is yours or his. The heat of the day had been oppressive in this Texas town, a choking steam bath spilling into your lungs. You swallowed it. You tasted it. You sensed it on you and inside you.

And now you know how the Pistons felt Thursday night.

In a game that felt like one long shot block, the referees let them play and the blows were exchanged and when the night was over, Detroit had lost, 84-69, the lowest total in their playoff history. They were bested down the stretch by defense, by pressure, by charging calls and, finally, by some clutch shooting.

Knock, knock. The East is here.

Knock, knock. The West looks just like it.

Spurs hold serve. Pistons serve notice. Oh, this may not have been a close score when all was said and done – Pistons led early, Spurs led late – but it’s apparent these two teams can play with each other. If they survive.

But the Pistons are going to have to make their jumpers and make their lay-ups and make their free throws – if the refs actually blow the whistle – because scoring points will not be easy in this series. Heck. Hitting the rim is not a given! The Pistons had 32 points in the second half. For some teams, that’s a quarter! Then again, it’s hard to score when every shot gets touched by three sets of hands.

Physical? Often in the playoffs you have NBA players glaring at the refs after a foul is called. On Thursday they were glaring at the refs, almost begging for fouls to be whistled. Rip Hamilton hit the deck, Ben Wallace went to the floor, time after time, and that’s not easy to do. No one was open for more than a second. Almost nothing was uncontested. Few points were scored without a price – a nick, a slap, a bruise.

Tayshaun Prince, on one play, got cleanly blocked by Duncan, retrieved the ball, went right back up, and got slammed down by Robert Horry.

If you didn’t hit the floor, you weren’t on it.

But in the end, it was all Spurs – particularly Manu Ginobili, the man from another continent with the game from another planet. He had 15 points in the fourth quarter (26 overall). He drove, he dunked, every time you looked up he seemed to be flopping over like a soccer player in mock pain, drawing an offensive foul, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was racing down the lane like something from an erector set. He is awkward looking. But he gets his numbers. And he’s awfully tough to defend.

Knock, knock. East is here.

Knock Knock. West is ready.

Duncan does his job

Now if you watched the start of this game – specifically the first seven minutes – you might have shut it off and started painting your float for the Detroit parade. The ball went up, and the Pistons became spiders, eight arms apiece. Every Spur who entered the web met a hand, another hand, another hand, another hand, they lost their rhythm, their dribbles and eventually the ball. Shots were poked or blocked, passes nicked or intercepted. The Pistons spun with gooey substance and the Spurs missed seven of their first nine shots, wilting under the assault. Detroit, meanwhile, zeroed in on the Spurs’ weak spots like one of those red lasers.

It was 17-4 before you could blink. Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach, told the ABC reporter at halftime it was “God awful”- but it didn’t feel that way for Detroit.

How a start like that turns to a finish like this is a subject for the Pistons’ coaches today. Detroit’s shooting went cold, it began to foul, Prince went out before the first quarter ended – two fouls – and he sat the rest of the half. And the Spurs began to run. Ginobili posed the kind of problems everyone thought he would – outside and inside and, of course, flopping to draw fouls.

And, once again, burying the lede, Duncan was quietly powerful. He not only scored 24 points but he wiped the boards clean, 17 rebounds. He is a force, less flashy than Shaq but much more dangerous.

As the game went on, the baskets came harder for Detroit. Only Chauncey Billups seemed immune from the drought. They cut the lead to seven points with under three minutes left, but a one-handed slam by Ginobili put a stop to that idea.

Knock, knock.

Down one.

Evenly matched teams

Before this series started – and this was only on a three-day buildup – the hype machine had you believing any or all of the following: 1) The Spurs would dominate. 2) The Pistons would surprise. 3) The Pistons were the mirror image of the Spurs. 4) The Spurs were the mirror image of the Pistons. 5) Detroit had no one to stop Duncan. 6) San Antonio had no one to stop Rasheed Wallace. 7) The pace would drag like mud. 8) The pace would be faster than you thought. 9) Larry Brown, the teacher, would outsmart Popovich, the student. 10) Popovich, the student, would surpass Brown, the teacher.

Got all that? Good. Now throw it out. The fact is, these teams had only met twice this year, the results were split, and anyone who thought they could predict the future based on that was nuts.

What you saw Thursday was proof that these teams are well matched, and whichever team hits its shots that night is likely to win the game. San Antonio shot 43%. The Pistons shot 38%. Rasheed Wallace opened strong but closed weakly. Those things change, perhaps the result does, too.

Still, if this was Detroit’s best chance to steal a game in San Antonio – where the Spurs rarely lose – well, they blew it. They only scored 69 points. They made some uncharacteristic mistakes. But they were also coming off an emotional Miami series, and perhaps by Sunday, staying in one place, they’ll be better rested.

At least they’ll have gotten some ice packs.

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 Sunday – 12:30 p.m. at Borders in Southland Mall in Taylor – and on June 18 – 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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