by Robert Ferringo - 06/08/2005
If a team becomes an NBA dynasty, and no one is there to hear it, will their sneakers really squeak in the halls of basketball history? This is the riddle that faces the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs as they tip off the 2005 NBA Finals at 9 p.m. EST on Thursday at SBC Arena in San Antonio. This is the first time in 18 years that the Finals will feature the league's previous two champions. Detroit (+245) won last year, and San Antonio (-280) held the crown in 2003.
The hip thing to do this week is talk about how disinterested people are in the Pistons/Spurs series. They say it will be a thoroughly uninspiring end to an uninspiring playoff, as two clubs hide their lack of talent by playing good, if not snooze-inducing, defense. The ratings for the NBA playoffs on ESPN have been down 7 percent, on TNT they have been down 14 percent, and the ratings for ABC, which hosts the 2005 NBA Finals, have been down a horrific 31 percent.
Those people that say that the Finals lack intrigue are wrong. And a lot of people are going to miss a good show.
This showdown will match up two teams that know how to play The Game, and understand the subtleties and nuances of it. No, the Pistons and Spurs aren't a collection of flash-in-the-pan college dropouts or spoiled former prep stars that are all highlight and no heart. These guys are skilled gamers and seasoned veterans who would lay in L.A. traffic for a playoff win. Oh, and that defense that they play isn't "good" or "hard-nosed". It's torture-your-younger-sibling-and-make-them-cry-to-their-mommy D, and it's what has made each of these franchises victors over the past six years.
This is the biggest stage at the highest level for a game played the world over. The 2005 NBA Finals will feature the best player of his era, two all-time coaches, some budding stars, a handful of all-stars, plenty of solid role players with proven track records of success, and two charged up fan bases. And don't forget Darko, a.k.a. the Human Victory Cigar.
To add to the drama, more than pride will be on the line here. Other than the Los Angeles Lakers, these two teams are the only ones to hold the Larry O'Brien Trophy since 1999. The Pistons are playing the role of the defending champions, and the Spurs are attempting to reclaim the prize that they held in 1999 and 2003. The winner of this series gets to carve its name into the annals of the sport, and will leave armed with a resume befitting a bona fide Dynasty.
Many people feel like Detroit doesn't even deserve to be in the 2005 NBA Finals. The believe that if Dwyane Wade had been healthy over the last two games (or even the last minute, 15 seconds) of the Eastern Conference finals Detroit wouldn't be here. However, the same could be said about San Antonio. The Spurs were 1-1 against Phoenix in the Western Conference finals when the Suns had Joe Johnson in the lineup. Johnson, who wore a mask to protect a fractured orbital bone, would've made an even bigger impact had he played the whole series. Also, it took San Antonio six games to best Seattle in the second round when the SuperSonics were playing without two starters, all-star Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic.
Will the 2005 NBA Finals save the NBA's ratings? No. Will it be the aesthetically pleasing? Not to the common fan or to Madison Avenue. But will it feature six or seven hard-fought, well-executed, fundamentally-sound games with all the passion, energy, subplots and drama that a championship series needs? My money is going down on it.
So without further ado, your 2005 NBA Finals Breakdown:
PG: Tony Parker (SA) vs. Chauncey Billups (Det)
Parker has been averaging 18.7 for the Spurs, and now in his fourth season has developed into a solid floor leader. He'll be looking to push the tempo against Billups, who has been logging heavy minutes in the playoffs. Despite his production, Parker is better going to the rim and has really struggled with his outside shot the last two series.
Billups is the Money Man for Detroit. He takes and makes most of the Pistons' big shots, and will have to be ON this entire series for him for his team to beat the Spurs. He is averaging 18.0, and is automatic at the line, shooting 89%. That's a huge advantage when trying to protect a lead in the last two minutes of a game.
SG: Bruce Bowen (SA) vs. Richard Hamilton (Det)
I know that Manu Ginobli is technically the Spurs off-guard, but once Ron Artest was suspended Bowen became the league's top one-on-one defender. He will harass Hamilton mentally and physically, much like he did against Ray Allen, and make him work for his points. You can't leave him on offense because he's lethal as a spot-up shooter.
Hamilton is the smooth scoring leader for the Pistons, notching 21.3 points per game. He dominated for stretches in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat, and is the guy that Detroit looks to when their offense gets stagnant. Instead of chasing around Ginobli, Hamilton will probably guard Bowen so he can rest a bit on defense.
SF: Manu Ginobli (SA) vs. Tayshaun Prince (Det)
Besides Wade, Ginobli has been the NBA's breakout player this postseason. The deft lefty is averaging 21.8 and has been nearly unguardable since April. He is always a step ahead of the defense, whether it's finding the trailer cutting to the hole or taking those large strides to the hole and flipping in some contorted shot. Plus the foul.
The Pistons' beat writers voted Prince as the MVP of this team. He's going to need to be for Detroit to repeat. His length and athleticism make him the perfect counter to Manu. On offense, look for Prince to post up the smaller Argentinean for a few lefty hooks or turnaround jumpers. Look for Prince to meet or exceed his 14.7 playoff average.
PF: Tim Duncan (SA) vs. Ben Wallace (Det)
Again, let's not get caught up with the position labels here. When all is said and done, Duncan will eventually pass Karl Malone as the Greatest Power Forward of All Time. Duncan (24.9 pts., 11.7 reb.) is cool and calm, but also focused and intense and sets the tone for this cold-blooded San Antonio crew. He knows when to dominate and when to defer, but will need to prove that he can make his free throws (73 percent in the playoffs) in order to remain The Man in crunch time.
Wallace is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA. He will have to stay out of foul trouble and, most importantly, keep Duncan off the offensive glass. Wallace has had over 10 rebounds in 58 of his 68 playoff games, and is averaging 11.7 in the playoffs.
C: Nazr Mohammed (SA) vs. Rasheed Wallace (Det)
Mohammed has been getting a lot of love for his play for the Spurs in their march to the Finals. He's averaging eight points and eight rebounds and been a solid second option for San Antonio. However, he's not facing Steven Hunter or Reggie Evans anymore. He'll have his hands full with 'Sheed.
Rasheed has put his money where his mouth is. After his meltdown in Game 5 of the East Finals, he came back and was an absolute animal in Games 6 and 7. Wallace is the wild card for Detroit. If he channels his energy into his play, he's a matchup nightmare and a clutch performer. If he loses his cool, that may mean more minutes for Elden Campbell. No one wants that.
For San Antonio, it's all about Big Shot Bob Horry. Horry has truly proven himself to be one of the All-Time Clutch performers, and is good for at least two back-breaking 3-pointers a series. However, where he also does a ton of damage is on the offensive glass. Besides Horry, the Spurs will go to Brent Barry, another long, tall, athletic perimeter and Glenn Robinson to provide some outside touch and offensive pop off the pine.
For Detroit, they don't rely on their bench for anything other than to rest the starters. Antonio McDyess has been a nice find, and can offer some O, and Lindsey Hunter is always ready to pump up some threes. I'm very intrigued by Carlos Arroyo, and can't figure out why he hasn't played more for this team. He is an outstanding passer and offensive facilitator, and can handle the ball well enough to allow Billups to move to the 2, but Brown hasn't gone to him.
Coaches: Gregg Popovich (SA) vs. Larry Brown (Det)
This is a push. Popovich is underrated, and has shown creativity (see: bringing Ginobli off the bench against the Sonics) throughout the playoffs. He is a steady influence, and has a great understanding of the pulse of this team. It's not an accident that his teams are 16-4 in closeout games in his career.
Brown has forgotten more basketball than I know. However, he can't be excused for the distraction he rained down on his team with all the talk of him going to Cavaliers. Also, he gets too comfortable with his regular rotation at times and as an underdog in this series needs to be willing to make some moves to put his team over the top.
Some random stats to leave you with:
- This is only the fifth time ever that the top two defensive teams have met in the finals. The Spurs were No. 1, and Pistons were No. 2 this season. The top ranked team has won three of the last four times that's happened.
- San Antonio was a ridiculous 38-3 at home during the regular season.
- Detroit was 19-11 vs. the West this year; San Antonio was 23-7 vs. the East.
- Detroit's five starters played 1,397 minutes together this year - by far the most in the NBA.
- Detroit has held six opponents to 66 points or fewer over the last five years. All other teams combined have done so three times.
- With their 111-108 win at Phoenix in Game 2 of the West Finals, San Antonio became only the third team in NBA history to win the first two games of a playoff series on the road after having trailed entering the fourth quarter in each game.