- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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They have the best player in the series and, well, maybe the two best players.
They have the far deeper bench and the home-court advantage and the sort of stylistic adjustability that has their coach, in a complimentary way, calling them chameleons.
They have to be the favorites in the forthcoming NBA Finals, these San Antonio Spurs.
Yet they also have to know that this will be the toughest Finals they've seen yet.
In the Spurs' previous two title runs, winning the West basically guaranteed the championship. The Knicks took a game off them in 1999, and the Nets somehow worked themselves to a 2-2 tie in the 2003 Finals, but neither of those teams was given any real hope of beating San Antonio. Not after San Antonio won the Shaq-and-Kobe conference. The Finals were a formality.
It'll be different this time, even though the Spurs have the most athletic and versatile team they've ever fielded. The defending champs from Detroit are good for at least two wins, given their own defensive prowess and resilience and championship pedigree.
The Pistons will guard Tim Duncan better than he has ever been defended on this stage, especially since he's in the Finals for the first time without David Robinson as a tag-team partner. Rasheed Wallace has always been able to hang with Duncan defensively, and Ben Wallace makes for a pretty decent helper. Detroit also has Elden Campbell to lean on Duncan for a foul or two, rounding out the effective three-man unit the Pistons just ran at Shaquille O'Neal.
The Pistons likewise have a lanky lefty to shadow the Spurs' crafty lefty. You can argue (and we do) that Manu Ginobili is almost Duncan's equal for dependability and thus the No. 2 talent these Finals can offer, ahead of any Piston you want to name. Detroit, though, can counter Ginobili's guile with a smothering southpaw named Tayshaun Prince, which means Ginobili will have to be at his craftiest.
Which means the Pistons might be good for more than two wins.
Stress might. Anything's possible, but you can't be wowed by these Pistons after they struggled to KO a battered Miami team. You also can't deny that the Spurs have their own stoppers (Bruce Bowen and Ginobili) and speed (Tony Parker) to keep Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton from scoring freely. Comparing frontcourt trios, furthermore, I'd take Duncan-Nazr Mohammed-Robert Horry over the Wallace Brothers and Antonio McDyess, given how efficient Nazr and Horry have been lately.
And with Duncan, naturally, as the difference-maker.
Playing on a couple of bad ankles, and admitting that he won't be 100 percent healthy until getting some significant offseason rest, Duncan has nonetheless managed to elevate his game in every round. Except for a Game 4 free-throw nightmare in the Phoenix, he patiently carved up the Suns.
"He will take what you give him," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, praising Duncan's trust in his teammates when he's double-teamed and the punishment he coolly administered when Phoenix single-covered him.
"He is the ultimate winner, and that's why they're so good," D'Antoni continued. "I hate saying it, but he's the best player in the game."
D'Antoni hates saying it because Steve Nash, the regular-season MVP, is a Sun.
He also hates saying it because the Spurs have another guy, Ginobili, who can score and create and, most annoyingly, get to every loose ball fast.
"Manu was so good against us," Nash said of Ginobili. "You try to make him go right, but he's so quick that even when he goes right, he can switch back to the left and still get by you."
"Ain't nobody else really handled us [this season] like they did," Suns forward Quentin Richardson said.
It's important to note, of course, that the Suns aren't the Pistons. Phoenix parlayed its breakneck, offense-is-our-defense philosophy into a league-leading 62 wins and a trip to the conference finals, but Detroit plays on the Spurs' level. The Pistons are proven champions who got back to the Finals by improving to 7-0, including last spring's playoff run, in games with a chance to eliminate the opposition.
In those seven victories, capped by Monday's 88-82 Game 7 triumph in Miami, Detroit has allowed an average of just 76.7 points. That's defense San Antonio can envy.
So the Spurs will be ready. They're well aware that a season of chaos -- starting with an infamous brawl against Indiana ... and later marred by Larry Brown's health woes ... and most recently infiltrated by Brown's controversial flirtations with the Cavaliers -- couldn't keep Detroit from returning to the title round.
"Rip said it best -- this is what we do," Pistons president Joe Dumars gushed in Monday's post-victory celebration. "This is what we do."
Added Billups: "To win a series like this, it's validation that tough times never last, [but] tough people do."
Yup. The Spurs know all that. They know how tough these Finals will be.
Yet the feeling here remains that the Spurs have too many pluses to fall. Too many, even, to need a seventh game to take the Pistons out.
I'm even going to give them the toughness edge.
"They cover up their weaknesses really well," said Suns swingman Jim Jackson.
Which is why I'm confident they'll cover my Spurs In Six prediction, too.
The Spurs have to be the favorites in the NBA Finals. But they also have to know that this will be the toughest Finals they've seen yet.