AUBURN HILLS, Mich. One of these days, both the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons will bring their ''A'' game to the NBA Finals on the same night. It hasn't happened yet, but there are still as many as four chances left for the teams to click at the same time.
Detroit's 96-79 victory in Game 3 on Tuesday night was the third straight lopsided final score, making this series a historical oddity.
Never before in the finals have the first three games been decided by 15 points or more.
''It just seems like there's four- or five-minute stretches of games where teams are taking control, but the games will get closer,'' Spurs guard Brent Barry said.
The NBA can only hope so.
Overnight television ratings from the United States were down 31 percent from Game 3 of the Lakers-Pistons series a year ago, and the rating for Game 2 was off 35.5 percent from last year.
Not since the Spurs played the New Jersey Nets two years ago have ratings been this dismal, but at least the series has become a little more compelling now that the prospect of a sweep has been removed from the equation.
''Well, we're still down 2-1, so we're not sitting up here jumping for joy,'' Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace said.
Game 4 is Thursday night, and Game 5 is Sunday before the series shifts back to San Antonio next week. But that'll only happen if the Pistons can manage to win at least one of the next two games, and the Spurs seemed eager Wednesday to prove that their performance in Game 3 was a hiccup.
''At this point, I think the team that plays the smartest is going to win,'' Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said.
He also could have mentioned that the team that brings the higher level of energy will win. That's certainly been the case over the first three games, and both teams are puzzled as to why the intensity level hasn't been more constant.
''I don't know, usually you do expect games with the two teams that are left to be, you know, real competitive,'' Pistons coach Larry Brown said.
If there is a down-to-the-wire game on the horizon, both teams will have to reacquaint themselves with playing under a great deal more pressure than they have in this series to date. Detroit's last nail-biter was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, while San Antonio hasn't played a close one since finishing off the Phoenix Suns 101-95 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on June 1.
The deciding sequence of Game 3 came when Detroit had an 11-0 run early in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a rout.
Chauncey Billups started the run with a jumper and a layup sandwiched around a steal by Antonio McDyess, and Richard Hamilton ended it with a jumper after the Pistons grabbed two offensive rebounds on one possession.
The run gave Detroit an 84-69 lead, and it wasn't long before Brown was sending out Darko Milicic, jokingly referred to as the ''Human Victory Cigar,'' for the final minute of the game.
''We didn't have very many people play well,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ''I thought we succumbed to their pressure. It wasn't like they played a good quarter here and a good quarter there. For 48 minutes, they played like a team that didn't want to go down 3-0.''
The list of Spurs players who underperformed in Game 3 included Tim Duncan (5-for-15 shooting), Manu Ginobili (7 points and six turnovers) and Nazr Mohammed (4 points and three fouls in 18 minutes).
Bruce Bowen sank four 3-pointers and played a team-high 41 minutes, but his defensive pressure didn't seem to bother Hamilton as much as it did in the first two games. Tony Parker also had a decent game with 21 points and four assists, but his two missed free throws during Detroit's 11-0 run kept the Spurs from breaking the Pistons' momentum when the game was being decided.
Detroit got 24 points from Hamilton, 20 from Billups and 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and three steals from Ben Wallace, whose energetic play in the opening minutes of the game set the tone for the Pistons.
The Spurs certainly didn't bring the same amount of juice, which is why the complexion of the series looks a whole lot different than it did when the teams left Texas.
Ginobili was hampered by a bruised thigh after he collided with Prince less than 30 seconds into the game, aggravating a similar injury he suffered against the Suns in the conference finals. On Wednesday he said he was feeling better, and he did not expect the injury to hinder him in Game 4.
But no one could say with any certainty whether the Spurs will be better prepared mentally for the next game, just as no one could quite explain how two teams that were expected to play each other close have managed to produce three games without a scintilla of final-minute drama.
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