Series of extreme swings now best of three

Updated: June 17, 2005, 12:07 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Momentum in the NBA Finals?

Stolen.

Stripped clean.

Swiped is another handy description for what happened Thursday night, when the Detroit Pistons thoroughly hounded and then routed the San Antonio Spurs by 31 points and 12 steals.

Wallace/Duncan
Ben Wallace (3) was able to muscle Tim Duncan off the blocks again in Game 4.

It was 102-71 on the scoreboard and 13-1 in the theft column, adding up to Blowout No. 4 in these 2-2 Finals. The Pistons were so flawless, forcing so many Spurs giveaways while committing a Finals-record low of just four turnovers, that Game 4 is bound to spawn countless recitals of this unanswerable question during the next two off days: Who's in control now?

"We are really a different team right now," Detroit's Chauncey Billups warns.

On this night, so were the Spurs. Gregg Popovich berated his team at halftime, loudly informing them that they were treating the worldwide audience to the worst team performance in NBA playoff history.

Nevertheless ...

No matter how decisively Billups' Pistons just smothered the Spurs -- and no matter how glum Tim Duncan looked on the bench in the fourth quarter after playing meekly on the big stage again -- no one knows who has control. In a seesaw series like this? There's really no such thing.

With the Finals suddenly reduced to a best-of-three, all we can do is gauge where we stand on a handful of the maxims in circulation that are supposed to tell us what happens next in this Split Personality Series.

Tim Duncan always bounces back when he has a bad game.

Oops.

Who said that?

It wasn't just us, actually. Popovich believes it, too, to the degree that he never dares to lecture his franchise player after struggles like Duncan's 5-for-15 misery in Game 3.

"I sat next to him and said, 'Do I need to say anything or do you already know what I'm going to say?' " Popovich shared before the game. When Duncan nodded silently, Popovich said: "It's been great talking to you."

Then came Game 4 and the stunning sight of Duncan and Popovich side-by-side on the Spurs' bench, with the coach repeatedly patting the star's knee to try to cheer him up.

After three straight games with five field goals or less -- after the emptiest 16-point, 16-rebound showing you'll see -- it looked like Duncan could use a friend. After all, Pistons reserve guard Lindsey Hunter outscored him by one.

"We spoke more during the game," Pop admitted, "than we did in the last two days."

Only now the message needs to be stern. The Spurs usually like to leave Duncan alone after his off nights, but he is fading against the Pistons' roughhousing.

Seattle's coaches and players privately believed that Duncan's distaste for banging gave the Sonics a real shot to win the teams' second-round series, and they were right. Duncan is healthier against the Pistons than he was against the Sonics, but he's also facing tougher bigs now.

And Detroit's athletic complement of frontcourt defenders is wearing on No. 21, who's shooting under 40 percent from the floor in the series. Both of the Wallace Brothers and Antonio McDyess each took a turn guarding Duncan within the first 10 minutes of Game 4, and Duncan failed to find a rhythm against any of them.

It got so bad that Ben Wallace, by evening's end, had the more reliable jumper, sinking two fallaways to Duncan's none. It got so bad that Popovich, with the deficit in the 20s, sat Duncan for the final six minutes to try to clear his head.

"We have really athletic big guys," said Pistons coach Larry Brown, pointing to the reason that Detroit -- when it's focused and intense -- can deal with Manu Ginobili in pick-and-rolls and still make Duncan work harder than usual.

"You've got to have mobility with size."

Duncan? He's got to start hitting back.

The Pistons are doing to the Spurs what the Lakers did to them last spring.

This was Thursday morning's Daily Dime topic and now you know why.

Now you know why Tony Parker, even before this Game 4 humiliation, admitted that "we know that 2-0 is nothing."

Indeed. In the second round a year ago, facing the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers for the last time, San Antonio zoomed to a 2-0 lead at home, with Parker emerging as the Manu of that series. The foreign-born media darling.

The Lakers then reeled off four consecutive victories by roughing up Parker, packing the paint and forcing the Spurs to make outside shots, which they couldn't.

These Spurs are much better from the perimeter, but they suddenly can't hold onto the ball long enough to prove it. Detroit has increased the pressure on San Antonio's ballhandlers, clamped down on Duncan inside and -- you guessed it -- roughed up Ginobili.

No surprise, then, that Parker was asked if Spurs vs. Pistons feels even more like the L.A. series than it did Wednesday, when he volunteered the opinion that "everybody remembers that on our team."

"A little bit," Parker said. "We need to find a solution."

Of course, it's not like they're not capable. It's entirely possible that the Spurs, from this 2-2 juncture, will respond better than they did against the Lakers ... when, to be fair, recovering from Derek Fisher's game-winner with four-tenths of a second to play in Game 5 would have been a mountain for any team.

"They are the same [Spurs] who played in San Antonio, last time I checked," Popovich said.

Ginobili's thigh bruise is what changed this series so dramatically.

Popovich says no. "Manu's not injured," Pop said, insisting that Detroit's physical play and defensive pressure have triggered the flip-flop.

Ginobili concurs. "Offensively," he said, "I'm just not finding the way."

The numbers say otherwise. The Pistons' aggression has been undeniably sterling in their building, but Ginobili's production has dipped so dramatically that you have to be skeptical of the Spurs' brush-offs. As Ginobili himself volunteered, he found no room to penetrate for half of Game 1 and a like amount of Game 2. And yet, in those games he eventually found his way to the rim.

On a left leg that hadn't been banged into yet.

Which is to say that Ginobili, as much as anyone in this series, will be savoring the extra 24 hours of rest between Game 4 and Game 5.

The Spurs never give up 90 points in the Finals.

Check that.

They've allowed 198 points in the past two games.

But it's not because the Pistons have suddenly morphed into an offensive juggernaut. It's because San Antonio, which held the opposition under 90 points in the first 13 Finals games in franchise history, has never played a team in the Finals that could turn defense into points like Detroit.

"I really can't say it's our offense," Ben Wallace admitted.

The Pistons only Win When They Have To.

People seem to [write us off] every series. People are going to continue to do it. That's what makes us good, because we like to prove people wrong.
Richard Hamilton

If that's true, San Antonio wins Game 5 here Sunday night and Detroit wins twice in South Texas to repeat as champions.

Willing to bet on that scenario?

Not me.

Nor is Brown. His big fear is that the Pistons lapse out of the desperation that has enveloped them since coming home.

Will they be this hungry and active at 2-2 ... when they weren't at nil-nil or 1-0?

"I never worry about this team being complacent," Ben Wallace said.

Excuse me?

"People seem to [write us off] every series," Richard Hamilton said. "People are going to continue to do it. That's what makes us good, because we like to prove people wrong."

My advice remains: Bring it in Game 5. The Pistons can believe anything they want to, but my belief remains that Detroit has to sweep the middle three games at home to have a realistic chance of winning this thing.

Can't lose Game 5, at home, and expect desperation to save them again, since Detroit would then be visiting the hostile environment.

"It's going to take an effort just like this," Brown said of the Pistons' home finale, "to keep this series going."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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