- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- You almost have to rewind to the dark ages of tape delay to find an NBA Finals that has struggled for ratings like these Finals.
Allow us to lob in some ratings to try to help, since Spurs vs. Pistons threatens to generate lower ratings than even Spurs vs. Nets in 2003. Which attracted the smallest national TV audiences since (gulp) 1981.
Herewith, then, is a list rating the 10 individuals most likely to tilt what's left of the NBA's Team Play Championship ... with each team aware that the one winning Sunday's Game 5 instantly becomes the heavy favorite for the rings.
1. Ben Wallace
Big Ben (and his hair) is the closest thing to a barometer in this series.
When his hair is blown out in full "cotton candy" mode, to quote Scoop Jackson, Wallace is more assertive and Detroit, in turn, is up and looking fearsome.
When Ben (and his hair) is flat, as seen in Games 1 and 2, so are the Pistons.
Yet when I got him alone for a sec and asked him after Game 3, Ben said the hair was going back down into braids when the series returns to San Antonio for Game 6. This still baffles.
But back to Game 5. The safe bet remains that the Pistons we get Sunday night, with their switch flipped on or off, depends on which Ben Wallace shows up.
2. Tim Duncan
Let's be real. He's more like 1a on this list, because Duncan is the best player in this series ... and he's long overdue to start playing that way.
Meaning he has the most room to improve. If anyone on either team is capable of finding another stratosphere, it's Duncan -- more than teammate Manu Ginobili or fellow former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups.
I say so even though Duncan has responded meekly so far to Detroit's physicality, and even though the defense coming from the Wallace Brothers and Antonio McDyess gets better every game.
Reason being: I remember when Duncan went to L.A. for a Game 6 and hung 37 points and 16 boards on Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers -- on the Lakers' floor -- to KO the three-peaters. He's capable of taking it to anyone.
3. Tony Parker
The focus, from a Spurs perspective, is bound to zoom in on Ginobili's mobility after two off-days and Duncan's response to two days of rare criticism.
Us? Like Eva Longoria, we'll be watching Parker closest, and not simply because he's matched up against the rugged Billups.
It's because Parker has a history of fading on the big stage. The Frenchman was muscled out of the second-round series with the Lakers a year ago after two games of glory, and Speedy Claxton finished the 2003 championship run as the Spurs' point guard of preference.
After Detroit's two overwhelming victories changed the tenor of the series, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted on the eve of Game 5 that most of San Antonio's problems can be found with "what's between the ears and what's in the chest." In Parker's case, Pop is referring to Parker's mindset and willingness to be a driver/scorer.
The Spurs obviously need lots more than they've gotten in Michigan from their two best players. Yet they also need Parker to hurt Detroit with his penetration to loosen things up for Duncan and Ginobili.
Larry Brown called Game 4 maybe the best game a Larry Brown team has ever played, which is obviously quite a claim given all the teams on that list, but Big Ben insisted it wasn't a perfect game.
The proof? Rip managed just 12 points on 4-for-16 shooting, suggesting that Hamilton hasn't exactly solved Bruce Bowen as Rip announced he had after Game 3.
Three times already in this series, Bowen has held Hamilton under 15 points. Assuming these games ever get tight, Detroit will be counting on its silkiest shooter to do better.
No matter how many times 'Sheed starts a game by scoring a couple buckets inside with the greatest of ease -- over Duncan, even -- no one in Detroit seems terribly interested in forcing him to stay down there and keep doing it.
Memo to 'Sheed: The only reason so many of us pundits are always asking why you won't be more assertive offensively is because you can make it look so effortless.
Whatever. If it doesn't bother anyone here, I guess it shouldn't bother us. Maybe anchoring the Pistons' Duncan platoon as ably as 'Sheed has so far is enough.
6. Robert Horry
He really hasn't had a moment worthy of the nickname Big Shot Rob -- or Big Shot Bob, depending on your preference -- through the first four games.
Without any fourth-quarter drama through four games, mind you, there hasn't been a stage for the usual Horry Story.
I'd say he's due for a killer three or something else clutch, just as this series has to give us a nail-biter eventually.
7. Antonio McDyess
As John Hollinger covered in some detail, Detroit's bench is outproducing San Antonio's, which is only one of zillion scenarios no one expected when the series began.
Yet I'll go out on another limb now, undaunted, and predict that Lindsey Hunter isn't going to outscore Duncan again in Game 5, 6 or 7. Dare we say Hunter doesn't have another 17-point game left.
McDyess, then, becomes even more critical than he has already been for Detroit. This is the Dice one ESPN scribe expected to see (hello!) in picking him to win Sixth Man Award honors back in October. He's not just scoring; Dice's defense has given Detroit a third option to throw at Duncan to keep No. 21 off-balance.
It must continue, since I can't imagine the Spurs' reserves to keep no-showing like they have on the road.
8. Manu Ginobili
Just putting one of our lefty faves down this low is probably bad karma. But we did it anyway, because we consider a step-up performance from Manu a given if his thigh cooperates.
9. Chauncey Billups
Daring to list Chauncey in this vicinity is equally at risk for misinterpretation. As with Ginobili, he's only this low because we doubt him the least when lined up with all of his teammates. We know his Finals finish will be strong.
10. The Field
Throw everyone else in here, starting with the desperate coaches.
Pop doesn't want to be the guy who presides over another blown 2-0 lead, which would be even more painful than falling from 2-zip up against the Lakers last spring because this is the championship round ... and given that his mentor is on the other bench.
Larry, meanwhile, is trying to make his departure from the Detroit bench a triumphant one after a season of unending tumult and tzuris, to use the same Yiddish word for problems Brown used the other day.
You have to throw in the stoppers, too, since Bowen and Tayshaun Prince have been known to uncork the occasional offensive outburst, and we'll even include some off-the-board candidates for X-Factor Status, like Darvin Ham and Devin Brown.
Let's go one step beyond and make room for David Stern and Billy Hunter, who've apparently listened to their own gloom and doom. It was Hunter who said Wednesday that a lockout could be a "death knell" for the league, after Stern admitted that he could never justify a lockout to the public even if there were countless sound business reasons to back him up.
Stern and Hunter have since presided over a U-turn in negotiations that suddenly makes labor peace probable by the time these Finals end, after a month of insiders insisting that a lockout was unavoidable.
If Stern and Hunter deliver on the promise that materialized in Friday's marathon negotiation session, we'll have some salvation no matter what happens for the rest of these Finals.
Whether or not the blasted ratings get any better.
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com