In and of itself, one game to decide the NBA championship should be enough to generate suspense -- with the defending champion Detroit Pistons looking to add another chapter to their tale of laughing in the face of history, and the San Antonio Spurs looking to win their third title in seven years. But so much more is on the line -- reputations, legacies -- than just hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
Someone will leave an indelible mark Thursday at SBC Center in the first Game 7 in the NBA Finals in 11 years; it's only a matter of who and how. Spurs forward Tim Duncan, a two-time regular season MVP and two-time Finals MVP, will try to justify his status as arguably the best player of his generation and prove that he can claim a ring without David Robinson riding shotgun. Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, the reigning Finals MVP, will try to add his name to a short list of all-time great clutch performers without the benefit of all-star credentials.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich can escape from his status as one of the most underappreciated coaches in the NBA and join the elite company of Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. And, nomadic Pistons coach Larry Brown can win in the same place for the first time in his likely Hall of Fame career -- and develop more reasons to "love" his team.
"I'm really looking forward to [Game 7]," Brown said. "I think it's great for the league, and it will be a wonderful experience being part of that."
Brown shocked his team during a fourth-quarter huddle in the Pistons' 95-86 win on Tuesday with his proclamation of affection.
"I think he's more passionate about this game than anybody I've ever been around -- player, coach, fan, anything. I don't know anybody that loves the game like he does and cares about, you know, the integrity of the game like he does," Billups said about Brown.
Aside from the occasionally grating Rasheed Wallace and his cocksure championship belt, what's not to love about a team that repeatedly does the postseason limbo only to rise up? The Pistons already became the first team to win a Game 6 on the road since the league went to a 2-3-2 format. Only three road teams have won a Game 7, and it hasn't been done since the Washington Bullets in 1978. "So what?" Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter said. "It's a lot of things that wasn't done before. Somebody had to go out and do it. People throw that stuff at us all the time and every year; we have to rewrite some records."
Although home teams are 12-3 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, no team has lost the final two games at home in the Finals and the Spurs haven't lost consecutive home games this season, Popovich didn't believe his team had the upper hand.
"I don't look at records or percentages or who has won Game 7s or how many we've won at home or how many close-out games they have won and all that kind of stuff. It's about the teams involved, not about what history says about teams," he said.
Spurs forward Robert Horry was on the floor for the last Game 7 in the NBA Finals, when the Houston Rockets defeated the New York Knicks and developed what then-coach Rudy Tomjanovich called "the heart of a champion." Horry said: "The Pistons remind me of my Houston Rockets team, where you had a lot of turmoil during the season. . . . They remind me of that team, but I hope they don't win like that team."
For the Pistons to maintain their grasp on the title and repeat, they likely will need another stellar performance from Billups, who has been the most consistent performer for either team in this series. He is averaging 21.7 points and six assists.
"I do like these situations," Billups said. "I have some history of doing good in these situations."
So has Duncan, but he has had his mental and physical toughness questioned for the first time in his career. He has had six double-doubles in the series and put up respectable numbers -- but has grown frustrated with the Pistons' rough play on defense. He faltered late in Game 5, calling his performance a "nightmare," and failed to distinguish himself in Game 6, calling his performance "okay."
Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo said some of Duncan's troubles can be attributed to playing on a sore right ankle and fatigue. "He's tired. He should be tired. We were really worried about [his ankle]," Carlesimo said. "But he'll be fine. He knows he's going to get a rest after" tonight.
Duncan knows he can't be horrific or average for the Spurs to wrestle the title from Detroit.
"I feel I need to be assertive, but I don't need to be overly assertive," Duncan said. "And how do you balance that? I don't know."
Duncan also is unfamiliar with winning a Game 7 in the playoffs -- the Spurs have never been pushed that far since he joined them. The Pistons have won four Game 7s in the past three seasons, including a Game 7 on the road in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat. Wallace said the Pistons don't feel any pressure going into Game 7.
"Pressure busts pipes, we don't bust pipes," he said.
Said Horry: "Sometimes pressure will bust a pipe and sometimes pressure will make a diamond. [Game 7] is going to show you the true awareness guys have about pressure. I think the pressure for this team is going to make us shine."