Saturday , Jun , 25 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Champs Champs Champs

November 2, 2004. My first story for Hoopsvibe, in it a look at the ‘boring’ team from the Alamo City and the bold prediction that they would win the NBA Championship. That’s it. I had done it now. First time out on this particular site and, before the season had even started, and I was calling the whole damn thing. I couldn’t ignore the facts; I couldn’t ignore the best defense in the L, the best player on the planet, the best supporting cast no one cares about, and the best coach who never gets talked about. Then my line was “Just The Spurs.” Now my line is much sweeter – I told you so.

Game 1, SBC Center; 84-69

“Unbelievable.” That’s how Tim Duncan described fellow All-Star Manu Ginobili’s spectacular late game performance in the opening game for Finals 2005. After an eight day long lay off from the Phoenix series, the series favorite Spurs came out looking like the ridiculous south Texas humidity was getting to them; sputtering out of the gate the Spurs fell into a 17-4 deficit early against Detroit’s impenetrable defense only to be rescued by Ginobili in the second half.

“When I started feeling that everything was going so good for me and I was being able to finish or hit a three – the one I got in the fourth quarter – I just felt I was great, couldn’t feel better,” Ginobili said of his 15 point fourth quarter out burst. Lifting his team from its slow start and anemic first half scoring (trailing 35-37 at the half), Manu was brilliant and explosive as ever, generally just being one badass Argentinean motherfucker down the stretch.

Having played on the grandest stages of basketball before – including playing in the 2003 Finals his rookie year – Manu showed no hesitation taking center stage in an increasingly more common fourth quarter run by the Spurs. “No doubt that my confidence has been built up a lot,” said Ginobili after the game. “Now I know that even if I don’t play well in the beginning, I’m going to be on the court. And probably in the fourth quarter, I’m going to have the ball in my hands.” Coach Pop’s confidence in his exuberant star no doubt has played a large part in Ginobili’s growing confidence. Even after seeing Ginobili go 1-6 from the floor in the first half, the plan down in the fourth quarter seemed simple: give Manu Ginobili the ball and get out the way. “We were down defensively for a long time and Manu Ginobili did what you saw him do, and that was the difference in the game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich heaped praise on Manu after the game. “Manu had one hell of a night and we did play good D in the second half. We boarded well, so we put ourselves in a position where we could win a basketball game, but offensively, it was Manu Ginobili. He was something else.”

The tale on the Pistons side was little to talk about. Chauncey Billups provided pretty much the only consistent scoring for his team all night dropping in 25 and making sure, win or lose, that people remember the wreck he caused for defenses in last year’s Finals. The key match up coming into the series was supposed to be Duncan vs. Rasheed Wallace, and well, Duncan kept up his end of the deal. The big Fundamental went for 24 and 17 against Rasheed who only managed to counter 6 points offensively but also chipped in six big blocks. If only that defense had stuck around to negate some Manu Ginobili’s fourth quarter fiesta. Allowing any player, much less a guard, to go off for 26 on 10-16 shooting and 9 boards isn’t exactly the type of thing people had come to except from the usually lockdown defense of the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons know this and hate this. “He’s asked to be a slasher because if he’s not, Tayshaun is going to knock him and it’s going to be difficult for him,” Billups said of Ginobili. “But he had it easy. I think we’ll try to make it a little tougher on him and not let him get to his sweet spots as easy as we did today.”

In a series that is sure to be filled with suffocating defense and diplomatic press conferences – knowing the history between Pop and LB there’ll be a coach imposed gag order on clip board material – I almost thought Will Smith was going to be the most entertaining portion of game one. Sure Duncan had a double-double, but he’s Duncan, he does this all the time and almost never with any type of inspiration to it. So be sure to sign up for the Manu Ginobili fan club, because unless you’re a “basketball purest”, which may be the stupidest term in sports history, Manu Ginobili is all you’ve got to look forward to.

Game 2, SBC Center; 97-76

Anyone who has watched the San Antonio Spurs over the last few years has seen the Spurs and knows the way this works: tough D, drop it down to Timmy, rinse, repeat. And most certainly you’ve heard that this style of basketball isn’t prime time entertainment. Too bad nobody told the Spurs that. The Alamo City’s finest looked determined not just to beat the Pistons in game two, but put on an offense, and defense, clinic in the process. This is the Spurs – and there is none better. Perhaps Ginobili put it best: “We know who we are, we know how we play, how good we are”.

If not only winning, but dominating, on your home court is par for the 05′ NBA Finals course, then you could imagine that some instruction on how to use a Titleist was included in the plane ride home for the Pistons. “You know, hopefully with our crowd, we’ll start out from the beginning, you know, throwing the first punch and being aggressive and,” A visibly drained Larry Brown said after game two.

From the tip it was all Spurs, Manu draining a three on the first possession and the Spurs taking that to 30-19 lead after one. The rearview mirror safely shatter, there was no looking back for San Antonio. Manu continued his hot shooting, missing just two shots from the field in route to scoring a game high 27. Like game one, the Argentinean wingman left the Detroit defense shredded, penetration from game one returned coupled with hot shooting from the perimeter including 4-5 from deep. Tim Duncan’s ever present efficiency didn’t disappointed either, 18 points on ten shots to go along with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots for the big man appearing in his third NBA Finals.

By the half the only feeling perceptible on the Pistons side was ‘what the fuck?’ A look of disgust from Rip Hamilton near the end of the first half summed it up, and really, who could blame him. After averaging over 23 points per in the previous round against Miami, Mr. Hamilton meets Mr. Bowen and sees his scoring average over the first two games of the Finals drop to 14, and worse yet his shooting percentage to just 33 percent. Despite Rip’s claim that he’s getting the shots he wants, it’s obvious that Bowen has gotten under his skin and is taking Rip away from Rip’s game, forcing him into uncomfortable shots and bumping and shoving Rip off his usually unmolested off the ball routes. Tayshaun doesn’t look any better going an abysmal 1-7 in the game and being a general non-factor. In a complete opposite of last year’s Finals, Detroit looks discombobulated and out gunned, being shut down by a great team defense and torn a part by a great duo.

Yet with the Spurs you don’t just get the great play from the stars, oh no, you get great contribution from your role players as well. Robert Horry came through filling up the stat sheet with 12 points, 6 boards, five assists, and four steals. Bruce Bowen shot in 15 points including four three-pointers after a 0-7 performance in game one. Even rookie point guard Beno Udrih chipped in 7 points and played big minutes when Parker went out with foul trouble late. “Everybody is out there working very hard.” Coach Pop said. “It’s very physical, bodies are knocking and we made shots tonight. Obviously Manu made, you know, a lot of threes and Bruce made his threes, that really helps us offensively. So that made tonight’s game look easy”. Start swinging Detroit.

Game 3, Palace of Auburn Hills; 96-79

Fire blazing from the Palace torches, Stevie Wonder busting the Anthem on the harmonica, Mason announcing Sheed and crew, and Kid Rock – when Mo-Town does the Finals, Mo-Town does it right. Right from the start it was evident this was going to be a different series in Detroit. After a botched tip resulting in a San Antonio possession, Ben Wallace intercepted a Manu Ginobili pass and took it the distance for a dunk plus one, getting the home crowd crunk from the start. And after two potent doses of Manu Ginobili, the Pistons finally laid some hardwood on boy. Early in the first Ginobili collided with Tayshaun Prince, suffering a minor thigh contusion. Ginobili is a twenty point swing for the Spurs – +15 on the court, -5 off the court in the regular season – so needless to say having their key perimeter player hobbled wasn’t a positive start, not that it would have mattered. No one was stopping Ben Wallace in game three. After noting that his wife told him needed to step up after game two, Big Ben made sure the Mrs. wouldn’t be disappointed. Starting with his opening steal and three point play, Ben continued to set the tone in the first quarter, ravaging any and everything around the basket and tallying 7 points, four boards, five blocks, and two steals after one period. Despite being down 27-21 after one, it’s obvious Detroit’s game has been given a breath of life.

The second quarter, and arguably the highlight of the night, belongs to Tayshaun Prince. With 10:36 left in 2nd Tay takes off the break and lifts off to catch an oop from Rip Hamilton to cut the Spurs lead to two. Prince keeps his roll on to score 10 of his total 12 points in the 2nd. Rip pulls up for a jumper with 7:05 left in the half and gives his team a 32-31 lead, their first since late in the opening period. Managing to pull themselves back, the Spurs take a 42-41 lead going into half time, but you can tell they won’t be having their way like they did in the first two games. This is far more tightly contested a game. Parker and Ginobili have both been getting knocked around and Manu, the star of the first two games, is being held to relative futility. Everyone’s getting in on the act for Detroit and they’re collectively stopping San Antonio for the most part. “I think we figured out how hard we have to play,” Larry Brown said. “I think our guys realize it’s going to take our very best to make this a competitive series.”

The third quarter comes together for the Pistons and the “Detroit Basketball” feel is becoming not just evident, but prominent. 7:14 in the third and Hamilton lobs a pass to Ben who somehow manages a reverse dunk out of it giving the Pistons their biggest lead of the game at that point 54-47. Rip finally starts to shake off Bruce Bowen and starts hitting, going for 10 of his total 24 in the third period. The Pistons also decide to unveil a full court trap on the Spurs in the 3rd, further disrupting San Antonio’s offense. The Spurs are turning the ball over and Tony Parker seems to be the only Spur whose remaining aggressive.

The fourth sees the relentless Pistons D continue and the Spurs turnovers with them. The Pistons make the big shots while the Spurs don’t; Duncan and Ginobili are nowhere to be found down the stretch and the Pistons backcourt of Hamilton and Billups close the game out for Detroit. Ben finishes with 15 and 11, breaking his streak of five games with less then ten rebounds started in the Miami series. “You know, tonight we really came out here and took care of business at home,” Rip said in the post-game conference. “We defended, we helped each other out and we got a win.” 2-1. DEE-troit BASS-ket-BALL.

Game 4, Palace of Auburn Hills; 102-71

Take a nap, play Halo 2, watch the US Open, watch grass grow. Those are a list of things you could have done instead of watching the NBA Finals. About the third quarter of game four it hit me, I have to write something mildly compelling about this game. And now you know why the media constantly yaps about the grind it out style of play that was prevalent in the Finals, it may win championships, but damn if it doesn’t make our work difficult. Alas, we are professionals (or semi-professional), so we do what we can.

The game starts off similar to game three – the tip being botched (how hard is it to toss a ball up successfully?). San Antonio opens with the first two buckets and takes a 4-0 lead. Hopefully they enjoyed it, because it would be the biggest lead they held in the game. Off a Chauncey Billups steal Rip Hamilton breezes in on the break for a wide-open dunk followed up by a Ben Wallace layup, Ben Wallace steal, and another Ben Wallace layup. The Piston take the lead 6-4 and never lose their strangle hold on the game.

Fill in the blanks of the second, third, and fourth quarters with one phrase: DEE-troit BASS-ket-BALL. A retelling of details would prove even less entertaining then the events themselves; suffice to say, Parker was held scoreless in the first half, Manu Ginobili again had a minimal effect on the game, and Tim Duncan was 5-17 from the floor. “They were physical again, and they got us on our heels again, we reacted very poorly to it, and you see the result,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Tay and Billups held things up offensively in the second, Lindsay Hunter – who came into game four as the worst shooter in NBA Playoff history – snapped out of his shooting slump for 9 points in the third, and the only thing you need to know about the fourth was that Darko Milicic saw playing time – and scored, almost impressively, too. That victory cigar tasted pretty good in Detroit for game four. “We were phenomenal tonight,” Coach Brown said. “I really believe in all honesty this is the best game on a team I’ve been involved with at this level, this is they best we’ve played. This was a pretty special game.”

Game 5, Palace of Auburn Hills; 95-96

Trust me.

That’s what I told a friend of mine a day before the start of NBA Finals. We were discussing (read: arguing) about who would win the series – he called Detroit, I called the Spurs – and which players would have the biggest impact on the series. The usual names were thrown up; Duncan, Wallace, Wallace, Billups, Hamilton, Parker, Ginobili. Then, recalling many of the Finals of the past, I drop another name (and a guarantee) – Robert Horry. At a raised eye brown from my friend, I then give my bold prediction, that Horry would be the difference in at least one game this series. Maybe not dominate the series, maybe not even have one great game, but be the difference in a game, be it with big shots or just doing the little things, in at least one game. “How can you be so sure?” He asked, well knowing the history Horry carries with him, but still skeptical at my assuredness. “Trust me.” I said. Trust me.

This is game five, the series is tied 2-2, and as Robert Horry said, “It’s the playoffs, man. If you don’t get excited about the playoffs, you don’t even to deserve to be playing basketball.” Word, Rob. Word. From start you simply get the feeling we’ll be seeing a great game for the first time in this series. San Antonio is finally getting ball movement similar to what we saw in games one and two and managing to get around Detroit’s rough and tough physical play. After asserting his leadership role and proclaiming the Spurs success “starts with me”, Duncan comes out strong hitting the first shot of the game and recording 8 points and 6 boards after one. The game is tied, and actually into the forties (gasp!), at the half 42-42. Parker and Duncan led the Spurs with 12 and 11, respectively. Ben Wallace has got 11 points, but more importantly he’s 5/6 from the free-throw line.

A Duncan layup off a Manu look in the third pushes the Spurs lead to seven, 59-52, which is about as big a lead as either team would have. The quarter ends with a Horry three that gives San Antonio a 64-63 lead going into the forth quarter. Rob picks up from there and goes for three more from deep in the fourth, springing to life after going without a point through the first half. Duncan, Horry, and Ginobili manage to equalize Chauncey Billup’s (34 points for the game) ridiculous onslaught of points on the other end. End of regulation winding down, game tied 89-89, and Ginobili drives the lane, help comes, the shot goes up, no good, and Duncan misses the wide open put back – overtime.

After a turn around jumper in the extra five by Rasheed and the Spurs down 95-91, Horry gives an up fake at the three point line, drives down the middle and puts a ‘I’m a your daddy’ tomahawk dunk down on Rip Hamilton that makes you swear the Spurs forward is twenty-five. The Spurs finally lock down and force three consecutive Pistons misses to give themselves a chance to tie or win the game with 9.4 left. “It was supposed to be a pick-and-roll with (Manu and) Tim” Horry said of the final play drawn up, “and I saw Rasheed bite and I said, ‘Oh, let me stay out here.’ ” Ginobili said, “My first option in those moments was Robert. He’s a winner.” And so it was. Rasheed came to double Manu in the corner; Ginobili snapped a bounce pass out of the corner and straight to Robert Horry behind the arch. Nylon. 96-95. Final.

“That was probably the greatest performance I’ve ever been a part of, to see him there and to see him as calm as he was and willing to do whatever,” Duncan, who recorded 26 and 19 himself, said of his Horry’s late game heroics. “He was unbelievable,” coach Pop added. Unbelievable. Trust me.

Game 6, SBC Center; 86-95

“We can fight any odds.” The words are from Rasheed Wallace, and they shouldn’t surprise anyone. In his time in Detroit Sheed has taken it upon himself to be the official speaker of the house of guarantees. Although these words come after game six, something about them makes you think they don’t pertain to anything but the final showdown.

After game five, what could only be called a crushing loss for Detroit and a rousing win for SA, who would have thought that the Pistons would have the inspired performance in game six? Answer: the only people that mattered – Detroit. Every local newscast in SA-Town leads with Spurs related coverage; outside of the game itself, talk of citywide celebrations and parades is prevalent. But there’d be no party on that Tuesday and no parade on Thursday, the Pistons made sure of that.

Sheed came out hitting early and looking about as comfortable offensively as he had all series long. Tim Duncan doesn’t relent either and took advantage of early single coverage. Ginobili looks more aggressive than he had throughout the trip to Detroit sure, and the Spurs offense looks healthy, but Detroit still holds a lead through most of the second half.

After seemingly developing a phobia for making shots from 24+, the Pistons drained eight threes in game six including a deep dagger from Sheed with 3:31 left in the fourth to push the Pistons lead to 87-82. Duncan counters with a dunk on the next possession and a score over Rasheed on the next after that. Just like that the lead is down to one. Detroit takes a timeout with 2:21 left and Larry Brown takes over. “This is our game.” He says. “Every rebound, every loose ball.” San Antonio doesn’t score again. Ginobili is 0-3 with a turnover in he final two minutes. Detroit defies odds, forces game seven.

Chauncey finishes with 21 points, 6 dimes, and 6 boards. Rip leads the game in scoring with 23, even without his mask in the final minutes (compliments of a Bruce Bowen swipe and a no call). Rasheed goes for 16 including a couple jumpers from deep. “This is what it’s all about,” said CB in foresight of the final showdown. “You’re in the Finals, it’s Game 7, two best teams in the league. It don’t get no better than this.”

Game 7, SBC Center; 81-74

There can be no greater stage. Game seven, NBA Finals – were legends are born. The first time ABC got an advertising slogan right. You’re legacy is what you do in the biggest games on the highest level. Coming in an already two time Finals MVP was having his legacy – his place among the all-time greats – being questioned. Talk of “Timid Tim” in the papers and a whole spew of bullshit from Bill Walton. Though Tim is far too classy to say it himself, his performance in game seven screamed “Fuck ya’ll! I’m the greatest!” True that.

Tim wastes no time as he comes out to hit the first bucket of the game, a running bank shot over Sheed. Ginobili hits the second shot of the game, then the next. But the Argentine guard picks up two fouls and sits for the rest of the first.

Ben racks three dunks on three consecutive possessions in the second and has twelve going into the half with his team leading 39-38. Duncan has been slowed, shooting just 4-9 with 8 points. Thankfully for the Spurs Horry and Barry, the two big acquisitions from the past couple of off seasons, are coming though big in the first half and keep the Spurs close. In the third quarter the Pistons look like they’re ready to run that Detroit Basketball on the Spurs and claim their repeat. They get out the open court, push their lead to nine, and have locked down on Duncan, forcing the Spurs offense cornerstone to miss his first five shots of the quarter. After that, well, he’s a great one.

Duncan awakens, becomes about as demonstrative as he gets, and takes over the game. Duncan goes for 12 points, including 4-4 from the line, in the final 6:18 of third and the game is tied 57-57 going into the Final period. I look down at my notes and scribble: ‘Twelve minute championship.’

Fourth quarter and now Manu wants in on it, after all he’s teetering; good game and he’s a superstar, bad game and he’s just another overrated foreigner. None of the latter, all of the former. Manu drops 11 of his 23 in the final 10 minutes of the game including two wicked flights to the basket that leave the rim shivering. Horry decides to jump in because hell, he wants six rings. Horry puts one in from deep to make 64-59 with 8:22 left. Duncan is still dominating, only now he’s not just getting his, he’s getting everyone else involved; pass to Bowen for three, 67-61. A few possessions later another assist from Duncan, this time to Manu for a triple, 72-65. The Spurs put it away with nothing over than what they’ve been doing better than anyone else all season – defense. The stops are there and Horry draws a charge on Rip late. 35 seconds left and Manu takes it down the middle to make it 75-68 – Argentinean dagger. Spurs make their final six free throws and make it three titles in seven years.

Tim takes his third Finals MVP putting him alongside MJ, Magic, and Shaq as the only players to accumulate at least as many editions of the award. And per usual, Timmy diverts the praise to his teammates. “They’re all MVPs.” He says.

And now they’ve all got their rings. For Parker and Ginobili this is already their second, for Horry his sixth, but for Brent Barry, Nazr Mohammed, Glen Robinson, and the rest of the Spurs squad this is all a first. Being soaked in Cristal is something they can get used to. And if not well too bad because Tony Parker’s entourage, dubbed the “French Mafia” by Brent Barry, is dousing everyone in sight, teammates, sports writers, ESPN folks, and Eva Longoria alike. Pop is just hoping for a bottle of water at the press conference. He doesn’t have to worry about anything else, not anymore. First game seven win and his third title. It’s all good for coach Pop.

A team effort, led by the team leader and an all-time great. “Timmy is the leader of the team, and he just carried us tonight.” Tony Parker said after the game. Pop couldn’t agree more. “His complete game is so sound, so fundamental, so unnoticed at times, because if he didn’t score, people think, ‘Well, he didn’t do anything,'” Coach Pop said of Tim, who finished with 25 and 11. “But he was incredible and he was the force that got it done for us.” As it should be from the great one.

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