SAN ANTONIO So Tim Duncan is choking away Game 5, the NBA Finals and quite possibly his legacy as the game's all-time best power forward at the free-throw line. Every now and then, assistant coach Brett Brown chirps, "Anita!"
The team that plays together ...
Which goes to show that no matter how dark the cloud, the Spurs will find a silver lining of humor in it. They can't help themselves.
Brown, you see, claims that Anita is the name of his college sweetheart.
"She was fine," he says, "but short and flat."
The Spurs all know this. Hence, every time Duncan front-rimmed a free throw, Brown merely had to invoke the name to let the big guy know what the problem was.
This aspect of the Spurs' nature was the essence of my piece for ESPN The Magazine a few weeks ago. It catalogued pranks that put a lie to the idea that the team is as boring and bland as its black-white-and-silver uniforms. This epilogue merely illustrates that goofing on each other isn't merely a means of enduring the regular-season grind. It is, to steal a line from the Pistons, what they do.
Granted, coach Gregg Popovich can be as witheringly harsh as he can be lighthearted. His timeout tirades are a sight to behold. More than a few times in these Finals, he has turned red in the huddle, waved his arms and showered the team with inadvertent spittle.
After the embarrassing Game 4 loss, he booted all wives and family members from the team hotel in preparation for Game 5.
But he also can be found, at home or on the road, performing his, uh, unique workout on a treadmill that involves sideways strides and arm motions that are a cross between someone flagging down help and participating in a Hallelujah Chorus.
He also gives his players and staff room to vent in their own ways. The Spurs' video coordinators used Brown as comic relief a few days earlier, splicing clips of him as a high schooler playing for the Maine state championship to lighten the video breakdown of San Antonio's demoralizing performance in Game 4.
The Spurs' camaraderie is the key to the way they play, on and off the court.
Brown had no idea it was coming. "I couldn't figure out what was going on at first," Brown says. "The sad part is how bad you look. You remember yourself being so much better."
Even Robert Horry's heroics in Game 5 couldn't save him from getting skewered by Duncan at the postgame news conference. Horry abhors when people call him "Bob" or "Bobby," so Duncan refers to him that way whenever he can.
It has inspired enough confusion that his nickname, "Big Shot Rob," is now appearing everywhere from USA Today to ESPN.com as "Big Shot Bob." The way I see it, the man has earned enough respect to have his nickname spelled the way he wants it.
Duncan, however, can't resist the fun of it.
"It's Bobby Horry," he said. "He does whatever he wants to do. He's Big Shot Bob. ... Guys were just impressive all around Tony Parker, Manu continuing to attack and, of course, Bobby."
The only time he referred to him as Rob was when he was zinging him about coasting for entire games and even seasons until a big moment presents itself.
Duncan gets his share, as well. During the layoff between the conference finals and NBA Finals, reserve forward Sean Marks covered Duncan's black Hummer entirely with silver Spurs magnetic refrigerator schedules.
"I know he's going to get me back," Marks says. "I just don't know when."
Athletic trainer Will Sevening already exacted his revenge for Marks' yanking his tie midway through Game 1. Sevening swiped the ignition key for Marks' Chevy Tahoe and froze it in a cup of ice.
"It's not as if we're always goofing around," Marks says. "This time of year, it's a little more rare. You have to pick your spots. There's business at hand."
All work and no play, though, makes the Spurs well, not the Spurs.
The Pistons, including Prince and Wallace, have been here before.
Gregg Popovich made all the necessary strategic adjustments to win Game 5. Now, in what might be Larry Brown's last game as Pistons head coach, it's Brown's turn.
Brown has to find a way to address the two critical areas that allowed San Antonio to win Sunday: ball pressure and 3-point shooting.
Ball pressure is the more important one. The Pistons' traps suffocated the Spurs in Games 3 and 4, but San Antonio navigated through them in Game 5. That was to the detriment of Detroit's offense as much as its defense with only nine fast-break points, the Pistons had to earn their baskets in half-court sets, and the points came far less easily.
One reason for San Antonio's improvement is beyond Brown's control the Spurs didn't play backup point guard Beno Udrih, who has been a turnover machine in the Finals.
But the other reason Detroit's ball pressure was less effective is that the Spurs avoided Lindsey Hunter like the plague. The Spurs often had their shooting guard or small forward bringing the ball upcourt while Hunter's man was at the far end of the floor, eliminating Hunter's ability to spring surprise traps.
Expect Brown to coach like it's the last game he'll ever coach.
Brown has a few options for how to deal with this, but one obvious answer is a zone press with Hunter at the top. That way, he's always the defender on the ball regardless of which Spur brings the ball up. Additionally, the new wrinkle might surprise the Spurs, who have seen mostly man-to-man pressure thus far.
Brown also must make an offensive adjustment to get his team some 3-pointers.
The Spurs defended the 3-point line well all season, permitting a league-low four trifectas made per game. But what has happened in the Finals is ridiculous. Detroit has made only eight 3-pointers in five games Robert Horry alone has made more (11).
The pick-and-pop play that gets Rasheed Wallace easy looks from downtown has been a nonfactor in the series thus far, leaving Chauncey Billups as the Pistons' lone 3-point weapon he has six of the team's eight triples.
Detroit isn't primarily a 3-point shooting team, so I'm not suggesting the Pistons need to go Phoenix on the Spurs in Game 5. But against such a stout interior defense, it would help Detroit greatly if it could stretch out San Antonio's defense once in a while.
Additionally, the 3-point gap is a major reason Detroit is trailing in the series despite dominating in many other respects: The Spurs have a mind-boggling 84-point advantage on 3-pointers in the five games (36 3-pointers to eight for the Pistons).
Monday's travel day limited the time available to implement new schemes, so it won't be easy for Brown to make these adjustments.
But the alternative is worse. Detroit's championship reign will end Tuesday night unless it turns up the pressure on defense and makes a 3-point shot once in a while.
It's up to Larry Brown to make it happen.
Sunday's spectacular Game 5 brought us mail from all perspectives.
Joe (New York): Wow. Can you say, "And there's a steal by Bird!" The most heartbreaking loss for Detroit since that lazy pass by Isiah Thomas.
Dr. V (Berkeley): Was 'Sheed desperately trying to lose Game 5? Did you see him almost pull a C-Webb by trying to call a timeout at the end of regulation, one that they didn't have?
Larry (Scottsdale, Ariz.): To all the people who think Robert Horry is a Hall of Famer, you are nuts. A guy who has career averages of seven points and five boards is not a Hall of Famer. He is one of the most clutch shooters in playoff history but not a star, superstar or even close to the Hall of Fame. You're telling me he's a better player than Dominique Wilkins or Joe Dumars, who aren't in the Hall of Fame? I don't think so.
Lonnie Jones (Ft. Worth): I'm glad to see sportswriters go against the grain, so seeing Legler stick up for Duncan despite the eighth-grade level free-throw shooting is admirable. But please don't roast Billups for missing one shot at the end of regulation that was being guarded by every Spur on the floor. I was pulling for SA big time, and it was Billups who was torturing me, much more than Duncan was scaring Detroit's fans, I'm sure. And Billups hits free throws like a machine regardless of the pressure. Man, what a warrior!
Will the Spurs still be flying after their Game 5 thriller? Will they be too high?
To win this series, San Antonio and Detroit each will have to fight off some strong tendencies.
At first glance, the Spurs have a lot more going for them.
In NBA history, teams that have led a best-of-seven series 3-2 have gone on to win the series 85.4 percent of the time.
Also: In the history of the 2-3-2 format, no team has ever won Games 6 and 7 on the road after trailing 3-2 in the NBA Finals. Only one road team (the 1953-54 Syracuse Nationals) won Game 6 to force Game 7.
And: Since 1985, the Spurs are the eighth team to lead 3-2 and host Game 6. The other seven teams in that situation are 7-0.
But none of that addresses the fact that to win the title, San Antonio has to deal with Detroit's tenacity.
The Pistons are 4-0 when facing elimination the last two seasons, fending off the Nets twice in 2004 and the Heat twice this season. If the Spurs can't succeed where others failed and break the Pistons, the previous historical trends won't mean anything.
Every time the Pistons' backs have been to the wall, they've proved they can survive. The Spurs know how hard they'll have to play. The hardest game to win in a series is almost always the elimination game.
San Antonio has not lost to Detroit at home since 1997. That's when Terry Mills hit a last-second shot and I was an assistant coach. Seems like an eternity ago.
Detroit is capable of playing championship basketball in any arena, and San Antonio should realize this by now. The Spurs won the right to have home-court advantage by losing only three regular-season games at home, but Detroit knows the Spurs will have to earn this championship.
The Pistons probably will continue to trap any screen-and-roll action that Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili are part of. They want to make it harder in Game 6 for the Spurs to run their offensive patterns.
Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace must step up and keep the Pistons' attack balanced. That way, Billups and Rip Hamilton don't have to take so many shots.
Game 5 was the first close game in this series thus far. Detroit is hoping that Game 6 is the same way, giving them a chance to win in the last few minutes.
People get caught up in saying the Pistons can't win two consecutive games in San Antonio to win this series.
But what they forget is that right now all the Pistons have to do is win Game 6.
The Pistons can't start thinking about Game 7 until the final horn has sound for Game 6 and they have a win in hand.
In one sense, I believe the road team has an advantage in this series because it should be able to recognize how much intensity and energy is required. The Spurs proved they realized that with their performance in Game 5, when they ratcheted up their intensity.
When the Pistons look at videotape, they have to pay close attention to the level of intensity the Spurs brought to that game. For the first time in Detroit, the Spurs were at a level that matched where they were in Games 1 and 2. They played as if they weren't going to leave the building without a win, and they didn't.
The Pistons have to go into Game 6 with that same level of determination and know that no matter what happens, they're leaving the SBC building with a win Tuesday. If that happens, the Spurs will then be feeling the pressure.
Greg Anthony, in San Antonio
Popovich, assistant Brett Brown and Duncan had a spirited conversation in the locker room about Duncan's free-throw shooting after Duncan went 4-for-11 in Game 5, nearly costing the Spurs the game.
Brown and Popovich told Duncan he's taking far too much time at the line and, in essence, icing himself.
Duncan insists he's taking no more time than he did when he was shooting a much higher percentage earlier in the series. Brown has promised to clock both the earlier free throws and the latest to settle what has now become a wager. It was originally supposed to be a gentlemen's bet, but Duncan was so insistent that Brown now wants some of Duncan's money if he's right.
Ric Bucher, in San Antonio
Sure, Game 5's dramatics gave the Spurs the upper hand in the NBA Finals, but color two-fifths of SportsNation unconvinced.
We asked fans to reassess the series after Horry's killer 3, and with more than 40,000 total votes so far, a full 41 percent see the Pistons going to San Antonio and winning twice to defend their championship.
Who will win the NBA title?