The Detroit Pistons aren't officially home free yet, not facing Game 7 on the road. But the Pistons proved in Game 6 here Tuesday night, at least to themselves, that they're better than San Antonio. Yes, the Pistons are the better team. They're quicker, tougher physically and mentally, and more resolute. Defiance is their primary attribute, perhaps their trademark. They did more than simply stave off elimination in Game 6; they smacked the Spurs senseless, trashed San Antonio's plans for a championship parade.
No team in NBA history has ever won Games 6 and 7 of the Finals on the road. But Detroit is set to do just that. There comes a point in every series, even the ones that appear to be dead even, where both teams and everybody watching know which is the better team. And while any of the participants would be nuts to acknowledge anything like that before Thursday night's Game 7, Detroit's superiority became apparent in the fourth quarter of Game 6 when the Pistons ran their lead to seven points, then pushed it all the way to the final margin of 95-86. Stubbornly, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and scruffy irritant Rasheed Wallace played the games of their lives. Then again, we said that last year when they played with the same sense of purpose and determination to dismantle the Lakers. But that was in the friendly confines of home. This was on the road, in the home of a champion once-removed.
That alone should give the Pistons every reason to believe they'll win Game 7, too, the first Game 7 of the NBA Finals since 1994. In all the areas a champion measures itself, the Pistons were way, way ahead of San Antonio in Game 6.
With 2 minutes 15 seconds remaining during a timeout, Coach Larry Brown told his team, "We've got this game. Every loose ball, every long rebound, every hustle play, we make." And boy, was he telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Seconds after that, Ben Wallace spiked Manu Ginobili's driving layup attempt, and the Pistons scored at the other end to increase their lead to five, and it was clear the NBA was in for the biggest treat possible: Game 7.
And nothing that happened in Game 6 suggests home-court advantage alone is going to help the Spurs over the hump in Game 7. Before Tuesday night, the Spurs had gone 63-6 at SBC Center. Before Tuesday night, the Pistons had lost 10 straight games in San Antonio. Detroit had never beaten a Tim Duncan team down here . . . until Game 6.
They blocked shots, grabbed balls off the floor, crowded the Spurs shooters. Billups was the best player on the court and Hamilton was second best. And not one Detroit player wasted one second worrying about what could have been a demoralizing loss Sunday when Wallace made the killer decision to leave Robert Horry open.
That was yesterday. Today presented another chance to beat down an opponent. And by the fourth quarter, the Pistons were playing with all the confidence and arrogance we expected to see in the Spurs, playing at home with a championship on the line.
There was every reason to expect the Spurs to win Game 6, coming home with so much momentum from the Horry shot and a road victory in Game 5. Now, given the way the Pistons played with such poise and savvy to stay alive, it would stun me to see the Spurs win Thursday night. They walked off their court appearing beaten and bowed.
Duncan, one of the very best players of his generation and a man who has earned two championship rings already, once again looked ordinary at best despite the glittering statistics of 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting and 15 rebounds. It wasn't enough, not by a mile. Duncan was only 2 for 4 in the fourth quarter and, critically, missed 3 of 6 free throws. In the crucial stretch of the game, when one would expect Duncan to exert his influence, he was just another guy. He didn't get a touch on offense the final two minutes. If he couldn't find it within himself to be the best player on the floor Tuesday night, what makes anybody think he can find it for Game 7 with Detroit soaring?
It's hard to shock the basketball world in back-to-back years, but Detroit is about to do just that. Lakers last year, Spurs now.
"We're just tough, man," Pistons guard Billups said. "Our motto is 'If it ain't rough it ain't right.' " The good folk of San Antonio were planning and plotting from the moment the Spurs won Game 5 in Detroit on Sunday night to take a 3-2 series lead. They anticipated a third championship to the point of planning parties Tuesday night and taking Wednesday off from work. Of course, it's not the first time a city has gotten carried away in advance, figuring a home game meant an automatic victory and championship.
"We go back to the hotel instead of to the airplane," Billups said.
It's fair to wonder where the Spurs have to go to find the kind of effort and resolve they'll need to get the Pistons off them.
For a great team, this particular edition of the Spurs has too many loose possessions. They miss too many free throws (61.5 percent in Game 6). They don't go hard enough after loose balls. They throw ill-advised passes (11 turnovers to Detroit's five). Every time the Spurs got a lead Tuesday night, they appeared to go to sleep on the next possession or two. Detroit, on the other hand, appeared to play as precisely and resolutely as humanly possible. Since Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince were forced to the bench with foul and injury troubles, the Pistons wisely rode Billups and Hamilton as much as possible. (Rasheed Wallace, by the way, deserves a standing ovation for the way he responded to what he called "a bonehead play" the other night that killed his team. His 16 points, 3 assists and 3 blocked shots were invaluable.) Hamilton scored eight in the third quarter, Billups scored 11 and Detroit took control of the game in the tensest moments. Even though the Pistons lead was only 71-67 going into the fourth quarter, it was clear the Pistons weren't bothered by playing on the road. They certainly weren't bothered by facing elimination. They'd just won Game 7 at Miami. It seems they've been down all the time the last two years, down to Orlando, down twice to Indiana, down to Miami and down to San Antonio. None of it seems to faze the Pistons. They almost relish being in these spots.
With the outcome determined, Brown huddled his team again and told them he loved them. He loved the way they played, loved the way they rallied around Rasheed Wallace, loved the way they battled through technical fouls from yapping at the referees. "I've been with these guys for two years," Brown said, "and they don't disappoint me in terms of their desire to win and their respect for each other."