AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Three games into the NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons finally figured things out: With some energy and aggression, they can actually 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.''
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