If the Spurs and Pistons won't give us a memorable game, the very least they can do is give us a memorable series. That didn't seem particularly likely coming into Game 3, but the Pistons joined the NBA Finals in progress in an impressive way. They were as efficient, as energetic, as creative and as resourceful in Game 3 here at home in the Palace as the Spurs were in San Antonio. They stopped carping at the referees long enough to remind us why they beat the Lakers for the championship a year ago.
It was a typical Pistons victory in many ways. Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, the onetime basketball nomad, did all the scoring damage while Ben Wallace played like a tornado inside. Hamilton, after shooting 33 percent the first two games, hit 11 of 23 shots and scored a game-high 24 points Tuesday night, while Billups added 20, as the two gave Detroit a 96-79 victory and every reason to believe this series will have plenty of drama if nothing else back in San Antonio.
The entire NBA was in need of a good Game 3 of the NBA Finals, not just the Spurs and Pistons. Between the open discussion of a possible lockout come July 1, a huge drop in TV ratings from last year's Lakers-Pistons series, two lopsided and raggedly played games to start this series, and an epic level of whining from the Pistons about the calls, the league is in dire need of a spirit lifter. The biggest news of the day for a whole lot of pro basketball fans had nothing to do with Spurs-Pistons and everything to do with Phil Jackson's return to the Lakers as head coach. In a prolonged shot of David Stern during the first half Tuesday night, the commissioner looked somewhere between contemplative and worried.
He certainly has reason to be, whether we're talking about the big picture, as it relates to the labor disagreements, or this series, as it relates to the Pistons continued complaints about the refereeing. Pistons Coach Larry Brown went so far as to mention that his team never gets a break when Danny Crawford and Ronnie Garretson call Detroit games, citing a record of 1-7. Brown, a man who in every conceivable way is as good for the game of basketball as any coach in the world, should be called into the principal's office for sinking so low.
The Pistons, during the regular season, had on average 21/2 fewer fouls per game called against them, relative to the opponent, yet led the NBA in technical fouls. That strongly suggests all Brown and his players do is complain. It's become tiresome quickly. I'll happily blame Rasheed Wallace, the scruffy irritant, for most of it. He stupidly picked up a technical foul with 41/2 minutes left in the third quarter by bellowing about a call on which he was dead wrong.
Regardless, Detroit's mission Tuesday was to shut up and play because a loss, plain and simple, would end this series. The Pistons aren't the Red Sox, the Spurs aren't the Yankees and basketball isn't baseball. Momentum is so much more important to basketball, which also has no pitchers to disproportionately affect the action.
What had to scare the Pistons early in Game 3 was the way the Spurs responded to Detroit's initial surge. The Pistons led 13-8 and 15-10 and clearly tried to build a nice cushion early. But it was San Antonio that shot 58 percent for a significant stretch of the first half to hold a 42-41 lead at halftime.
Finally, the teams were playing a prolonged stretch of basketball that looked like it belonged in the NBA Finals. It didn't last forever, but it was better than anything put forth the first two games.
For a 14-minute stretch of play of the second and third quarters, neither team led by more than three points. When the Pistons were able to push their lead to seven points at 70-63, it was because the Spurs were downright sloppy with the ball, committing three unforced errors that Detroit converted into six easy points in a game. In fact, 13 San Antonio turnovers helped Detroit, offensively challenged in this series, to outscore the Spurs 16-2 on fast-break points through the first three quarters.
The impact the NFL has had on all sports in America is unmistakable. In pro football, one game is worthy of being overanalyzed, picked to death a million ways. The rarity of the games, only 16 per season, makes it not just okay to make major pronouncements game by game, but necessary. The football mentality, sadly, has extended to baseball and basketball where it doesn't belong. Yes, the Pistons had to win Game 3. But what in the nature of the reigning champs suggested they wouldn't? What in their nature suggested Rip Hamilton wouldn't find his shot at home, or that Ben Wallace wouldn't rebound the ball with great aggression, or that Billups wouldn't understand it was time to take over the game the way he did when necessary against the Pacers and Miami in these playoffs?
Momentum is so fickle in playoff basketball. Four minutes into the fourth quarter, the Pistons were back to playing like champs, picking the Spurs clean and racing down court. Sweep? I don't think so. Down 80-69, the Spurs were missing free throws, blowing defensive assignments. Tim Duncan appeared too gassed to even go out and chase Detroit's Antonio McDyess to the foul line. The Spurs appeared to play a particularly lazy brand of ball early in the fourth quarter and the Pistons know what to do with a gift. Manu Ginobili, who was being celebrated as the new god of international basketball after two games, had as many turnovers as shots (five) deep into Game 3.
Teams have a way of ignoring their coaches when they take a 2-0 lead in the series. Maybe now the Spurs will pay serious attention not just to Gregg Popovich, but the details of a championship series. Though in not doing so Tuesday night, they just might have let the defending champs have all the confidence they need to even this match Thursday night.