Wives. Kids. Second cousins. "Friends" of the program. They were all sent packing on Friday afternoon, schlepping their bags to another hotel, away from the unfocused ballplayers with whom they shared rooms. Two blowout losses on the road convinced Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, that his team was losing its grip on a series and a championship. He decided in favor of some bunker-style bonding time.
Pop's new rule: Players only. No exceptions.
Some wives groused. Brent Barry's wife, Erin, actually returned home. Others just zipped their lips and grabbed their makeup kits, understanding the reasoning perfectly: With the Spurs playing in front of the rowdiest mob in the league, not another distraction was needed.
Big Ben, 'Sheed and their hooligan friends had already bludgeoned the confidence of their South Texas men, left them in what Tim Duncan described as "a daze."
Facing their third humiliating loss in a row, remembering the Alamo was not the problem; for the Spurs, forgetting Games 3 and 4 was.
"It was tough the last two days because we really played bad and we were not playing Spurs basketball and we were not being ourselves," Tony Parker said. Depending on your handmade Pistons placard, Duncan was either "Timid" Duncan or Tim "Punkin'," the placid center from the U.S. Virgin Islands who did not look as if he belonged on Ben Wallace's playground. Parker settled for jump shots, Manu Ginobili went from averaging almost 27 points per game in San Antonio to a paltry nine points in Auburn Hills. The Pistons' arena became a lion's lair in which a very good team from the Western Conference was devoured, its players' hearts questioned as much as their heads.
But Robert Horry became flammable on Sunday night, scoring 21 points on a flurry of tip-ins, dunks and three-pointers, the last of which pierced the Pistons with 5.8 seconds left in overtime. The genesis of that turnaround -- the Spurs seizing a 3-2 hold in the best-of-seven series with a breathless 96-95 victory at the Palace of Auburn Hills -- began more than 48 hours before.
After Game 5 on Sunday, Barry was one of many Spurs to liken Friday and Saturday to a personal and professional retreat, where co-workers brainstorm and bond. "We became tighter," he said. After Pop's hotel purge, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and their teammates spent much of their time together -- much like the regular season. The Spurs went out and ate together after watching film sessions.
Sometimes, the game is so simple. For all the charted deflections and personalized defensive videos each player is sent home with, the motivational tactics employed by high school coaches sometimes work just as well on the adults.
San Antonio has a shot to close out Detroit in Game 6 on Tuesday night at SBC Center because millionaire professional basketball players, unaccustomed to losing their swaggers and their shooting strokes, lost both this past week. Yet the Spurs were honest enough to regroup in time to still contend for a title.
On the night of June 19, seven months to the day after Pistons fans squared off with Indiana players, the Spurs were doing everything they could not to get beat down again in Game 5. They just wanted to stay close and give themselves a chance, instead of falling behind hopelessly after three quarters as the Palace crowd rubbed it in.
The re-bonding gained steam over two days of practice. By the time the Spurs took the floor for Game 5, Parker and Ginobili were attacking the basket again, Duncan was as active and emotional as he has been all season, grabbing 19 rebounds to go with 26 points. The promise of taking one pivotal game on Detroit's home court would come to fruition in the final minutes, after a plethora of back-and-forth clutch shots by Chauncey Billups and Horry.
If the anatomy of a series-swaying victory began at the team hotel, it ended on the most perfectly executed play imaginable -- though it was not the called play.
Trailing by one with 11 seconds remaining, Horry inbounded at midcourt in the left corner to Ginobili, whose job was supposed to be to run a pick-and-roll with Duncan. Sensing Rasheed Wallace coming toward him and inexplicably leaving Horry, who had already drained 4 of 5 three-pointers, Ginobili whipped the ball to his teammate, who was all by his lonesome on the left wing. He rose and fired.
In South Texas, bedlam.
In suburban Detroit, devastation.
"Actually, I wasn't even thinking about it," Horry said. "I said, 'Okay, I'm getting ready to cut through,' and Manu, it was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with Tim. And I saw Rasheed bite and I said, 'Oh, let me stay out here.' "
Said Ginobili: "The play was for me to take that shot or play one-on-one, but as soon as I saw 'Sheed coming, you know, always my first option is Robert, especially in those moments. So as soon as I saw him I just gave him the ball and he made an unbelievable shot."
"Sometimes," he added, "you don't need to say anything. You just see the game. I couldn't do anything in the corner with Rasheed coming to me, so I just gave him the ball. I had nothing else to do."
Larry Brown, the Pistons' coach, most likely saw his team's chances of repeating die with that play and Wallace's momentary brain lock. "Up two with nine seconds to go, you talk about the things all year that you want to accomplish, and unfortunately we had a little miscommunication," Brown said. "You know, if everybody gets it, then you know you don't get in that situation. If everybody doesn't, it ultimately falls on me, so obviously we didn't get it."
Popovich, meantime, looked as spent as his players on Sunday night. He was asked if he was feeling giddy after the memorable win.
"Wins are a relief, and losses are devastating," he said. "There is no giddy or fun. That is why we are all sick puppies."
Spoken like a man who encouraged his players' families to find alternate lodging on Friday morning. Spoken like a man about to notch his third title in seven years, a thoughtful taskmaster who should now go down in history with Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and other coaches who have won multiple championships.
His approach to a series-deciding game is about to result in exactly what Pop planned: Spurs in six.