Auburn Hills, Mich Three games into the NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons finally figured things out: With some energy and aggression, they actually can play with the San Antonio Spurs.
Not only play with them, but soundly defeat them.
The defending champions summoned the spirit and spunk that had been missing in the first two games of the NBA Finals, changing the complexion of the series in a way many thought impossible.
Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton led the way as the Pistons dominated the final 14 minutes and defeated the Spurs, 96-79, in Game 3 Tuesday night.
"I think we figured out how hard we have to play," coach Larry Brown said. "I think our guys realize it's going to take our very best to make this a competitive series."
Television ratings have been down and interest has been low, but the best-of-seven series suddenly looks much more compelling. No longer is there a chance for a sweep, and never again will anyone question whether the Pistons can even play with the likes of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Co.
Ginobili got hurt in the game's first 30 seconds was a non-factor for the first time in the series, and Duncan could not match the energy or enthusiasm generated by Wallace, the NBA's Defensive Player of the year. Wallace's dunk with 4:27 left gave Detroit its largest lead up to that point, 88-73, and the Pistons held on easily from there.
Now, the Pistons will look to even the series at 2-2 in Game 4 on Thursday night and ensure a trip back to Texas.
Known for their resiliency over the past two postseasons, the Pistons finally showed the one distinct team characteristic that had been eluding them since Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami.
"We knew this was the game that we needed," Rasheed Wallace said. "And, definitely being the home team came up in that mix and supplied a lot of energy for us."
Hamilton scored 24 points, including 10 in the third quarter when Detroit took the lead for good, and Chauncey Billups added 20. But although the Pistons got most of their points from their backcourt tandem once again, they were anything but a two-man team.
Ben Wallace had 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and three steals, and Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess each added 12 points.
Detroit became the first team to score 90 points against the Spurs in 13 NBA Finals games, putting together the type of poised, pumped-up performance they hadn't displayed since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at Miami.
Detroit had lost by 15 and 21 points in the first two games of the series, but they ditched the downtrodden demeanor that contributed to their undoing in Games 1 and 2.
"You know, tonight we really came out here and took care of business at home," Hamilton said. "We defended, we helped each other out and we got a win."
Everything about the Pistons was different, from their defensive intensity to their dedication in terms of getting more people involved on offense. Hamilton was more assertive in shaking off the pesky defense of Bruce Bowen, Prince was much more effective limiting Ginobili, and Ben Wallace seemed especially motivated to put two very sub-par performances behind him.
"He was great. He played with energy and got their crowd into it," Duncan said. "Their aggressiveness was up, and that in itself fueled what they were doing."
Ben Wallace blocked his five shots in the first quarter alone, and he had half of Detroit's offensive rebounds in the first half when Detroit had a 24-12 edge in points in the paint and an 11-0 advantage in fast-break points.
He set the tone right from the start, stealing the opening inbounds pass after he was called for a jump ball violation, then racing downcourt for a dunk and a three-point play.
Wallace ended an eight-game streak of scoring in single digits and a five-game streak with fewer than 10 rebounds.
Ginobili went down just a few seconds later, bruising his left thigh in a collision with Prince just 21 seconds into the game. Though he wasn't sidelined for long, the star of Games 1 and 2 had just four points at halftime with four turnovers. He finished with seven points and six turnovers.
"No excuses, no reasons, I just didn't play well," Ginobili said. "I didn't have a great game, and as a team we didn't have the juice."
Tony Parker led the Spurs with 21 points. San Antonio was outrebounded 44-37 and committed 18 turnovers leading to 23 Pistons points.
There were 20 lead changes and 10 ties, but the Pistons took over to such a degree late in the third quarter and early in the fourth that Brown was able to empty his bench near the end.
Detroit opened the second half with a 13-5 run ending in an alley-oop reverse slam by Ben Wallace off a pass from Hamilton, a play that brought the fans out of their seats and left rapper Eminem waving a red, white and blue towel from his seat behind the Spurs' bench.
But the Spurs came right back with a 9-0 run to regain the lead 56-54 before the Pistons closed the period with a 16-9 run to take a five-point lead into the final quarter.
"There are no games to waste," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said beforehand. "We've created an opportunity for ourselves, and it would be great to take advantage of it."
They didn't, and now it's a whole different series.
Notes: Wallace's five blocks in the first quarter tied Bob Lanier's club record for blocks in a quarter. ... Doctors used CPR to revive a man who had an apparent heart attack during the first half in the seats behind the north basket. The fan received a loud ovation as he was wheeled out on a stretcher holding his thumb up. ... Keyboardist and vocalist Stevie Wonder played the national anthem on a harmonica.