Pistons 96, Spurs 79
-- First off, the 'fro was back. That should have been a sign to the San Antonio Spurs that the defending champion Detroit Pistons weren't about to go down like chumps in this best-of-seven series. Pistons center Ben Wallace unbraided his hair and sported his trademark, uncombed Afro for Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night.
On the opening play of the game, Wallace gave the Spurs reason to fear the 'fro when he stepped in front of a pass from Manu Ginobili for a steal, dribbled the length of the court, hair bouncing wildly, and soared for a slam dunk. The Pistons delivered the first punch and they keep swinging until a Spurs team that could do no wrong in San Antonio began to stagger. The Spurs finally took a standing eight-count and a 96-79 loss at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
"We all knew how big this game was," said Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who had 20 points and seven assists. "And we've been in a lot of situations before. We've never been down 0-2, but in a situation like that . . . you know what it means. And you know the kind of desperation; you got to play without fear."
"I just think they were more aggressive than we were," said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, who was limited to 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting and 10 rebounds. "Nothing else to really say about it."
The Pistons were more physical, as they pushed around the Spurs, knocking down guard Tony Parker whenever he dared to drive into the lane. They hustled on defense, with arms flailing and bodies flying while they forced 18 turnovers that led to 23 points. And they didn't spend too much time screaming at the officials -- when Rasheed Wallace got a technical foul in the third quarter, Coach Larry Brown didn't waste any time finding a spot for him on the bench.
A change of scenery proved to be enough for the Pistons, who swept all three of their home games to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals last season. The shift began with Ben Wallace, who had appeared fatigued from his battle with Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference finals and was dragging against Duncan. Wallace certainly had his bounce back in Game 3 with rim-rocking dunks, including an impressive reverse, alley-oop slam in the third quarter. Wallace finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He blocked five shots, all in the first quarter.
"I don't know if it was a home-cooked meal or sleeping in his own bed, but his energy level was like night and day," Billups said. "That is the Ben Wallace we all know and love. There is nobody like him in this league. He's the best at what he does." Asked if he thought the Afro had anything to do with it, Billups said with a laugh, "I don't know, but we'll make sure that thing will be out on Tuesday, definitely."
Wallace wasn't the only player to break through for the Pistons, who had five players score in double figures. Guard Richard Hamilton finally brushed Bruce Bowen off his shoulder and scored a game-high 24 points on 11-of-23 shooting. Tayshaun Prince had 12 points -- two fewer than his combined total in the first two games. The Pistons became the first team in 14 games to score more than 90 points against the Spurs in the Finals.
"I think we figured out how hard we have to play," Brown said. "I don't think we realized we were in the Finals against a team that's unbelievably well-coached. I really believe Ben started us off."
The Spurs were searching for someone to get them going. Parker earned all of his team-high 21 points, crashing to floor after absorbing elbows from Billups and hip bumps from Rasheed Wallace. But after averaging 26.5 points in the first two games, Ginobili scored just seven and had six turnovers. He injured his left leg colliding with Prince in the first minute and finally looked mortal.
"I'm all right. I get hit there pretty often," Ginobili said of the leg, which was wrapped for most of the night. "That was not a matter of one guy didn't play well. I don't think anybody of us played well. We as a team didn't have that juice."
This series had been billed as evenly matched teams that play similar styles, but the first two games undercut that theory. On Tuesday, the Pistons and Spurs battled back and forth, as the game featured 18 lead changes and seven ties, with neither team leading by more than five in the first half. But the game began to take a turn in the third quarter, when the Pistons went on a 9-0 run. Antonio McDyess (12 points, 9 rebounds) rebounded a Ben Wallace miss and tipped in the ball, Lindsey Hunter completed a three-point play and McDyess followed a Hamilton miss with an emphatic two-handed jam. Then, almost in an act of desperation, Hamilton leaped to steal a pass from Ginobili and darted toward the hoop to give the Pistons a 70-63 lead.
The Spurs got within 71-68 when Brent Barry had a layup with 9 minutes 52 seconds remaining, but Billups responded with a three-pointer and a layup to trigger a decisive 12-0 run. Ben Wallace later sent the crowd into a tizzy when he caught a pass from Hamilton and zipped toward the rim for a two-handed dunk. "You know, it's one game. Now that game is over," Brown said. "I think our guys . . . realize it's going to take our very best to make this a competitive series."