Through four games it's the least entertaining NBA Finals since 1994, when the Knicks and Rockets were positively unwatchable. There hasn't been a dramatic game in the bunch as the teams take turns going from overpowering to incompetent.
The San Antonio Spurs, the favorites in this series, were so stinky Thursday night in Game 4 that Coach Gregg Popovich told his players it was the worst exhibition of basketball he'd ever seen from a playoff team. Popovich spent much of the fourth quarter talking to Tim Duncan, trying to figure out how it all turned so ugly after winning the first two games of the series. Worse yet, Duncan said Friday of him and his coach, "We're both just kind of in a daze."
Trying to figure out this series has put the rest of us right there with them. Just more than a week ago, some fool wrote in this space that if San Antonio vs. Detroit wasn't the Finals series you wanted, it's the series you should have wanted. Because Miami is a two-man team and because Phoenix simply doesn't know how to play championship-caliber defense, it seemed the matchup most likely to produce dramatic games would be the Spurs and Pistons, the NBA's two most recent champions.
The series may be tied, but this matchup so far has only produced duds. The average margin of victory through four games is 20.5 points. The closest game was the first one, with a mere 15-point spread. There hasn't been a dramatic fourth-quarter moment, no tension whatsoever, and we're already looking at Sunday's Game 5.
The Pistons at least have an available excuse as to why they were so lousy to open the series. They'd played an exhausting seven-game series against Miami, didn't have time to practice or even get an off day at home before setting out for San Antonio. So when Chauncey Billups says, "We're a different team than the one that started the series," it's easy enough to believe him.
But San Antonio has no such excuse. Rarely has a team had such a swing in two games without suffering a major injury. Duncan, after scoring 24 and 18 points in the first two games of the series, has scored 14 and 16 in Games 3 and 4 in Detroit. Much worse, after hitting 15 of 32 shots for a respectable 47 percent in San Antonio, Duncan has fallen off to 31 percent the last two games. Duncan has gone from averaging 22 points in the series against Denver to 25.2 against Seattle to 27.4 against Phoenix to a rather measly 18 per game against Detroit on 39 percent shooting.
It's not that Duncan is alone. Manu Ginobili, finally recognized as a rising star with some of the same characteristics as Miami's Dwyane Wade, scored 26 and 27 points to open the series, then followed with games of 7 and 12 points. But Ginobili, as talented as he is, is not San Antonio's franchise player. Duncan is. Duncan is the guy so many players and coaches believe is the single best player in the NBA today, a two-time champ not yet 30 with potential to surpass Shaq in bling-bling before it's all over.
Yet Duncan now is catching the first real criticism of his eight-year career. And it's legit. He's just sort of melted in the heat of Detroit's interior defense, hardly fighting to establish offensive position the way the great post-up players usually do. He's been Timid Tim in Detroit. "I thought I was a lot more aggressive," he said Friday of how he perceived his play in the 31-point blowout loss in Game 4. "I'm the leader of this team, so it starts with me. People are going to step up. But it starts with me. It starts with what I do out there on the floor."
While it's great to see Duncan take full responsibility for his team stinking the joint out, the Spurs still have to collectively and individually own up to what has happened. Reserve guard Devin Brown actually had more answers than most. "We're not reacting well to their intensity," he said. "They've been able to put us on our heels. We have to stay strong with the ball, take care of the ball. . . . It's hard to describe the emotion they came out with, especially in the second quarter. To match something like that, I know we can do it. But we have to prove that we can do it. I hate to say it, but we collapsed."
Popovich said: "I just think of it as two bad performances, and if it doesn't get better, we'll be in big trouble. . . . But there's no time for frustration."
Yet you can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. The Pistons believe they can win three straight at home for the second straight Finals. They believe they can run the table on the Spurs now, win Game 5 here at the Palace on Sunday, then go to San Antonio and use the momentum from the previous games to close out the series Tuesday in Game 6.
In the meantime, for folks looking not to root for one team or the other but simply to see some tense and well-played basketball worthy of the NBA championship, perhaps the Spurs are in such a dire position they'll play with the kind of purpose we expected when the Finals began, the kind of purpose that would make these games worthy of a championship -- which certainly hasn't been the case so far.