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Monday, June 20, 2005

Big Shot Rob Strikes Again

San Antonio's 96-95 overtime victory versus Detroit in game five of the NBA Finals is, as the cliche goes, an "instant classic." Robert Horry, a clutch performer who owns five NBA championship rings but a non-factor thus far in the NBA Finals, scored 21 of the Spurs' last 35 points down the stretch. Horry put the final exclamation point on his heroics by nailing the game-winning three point shot with 5.8 seconds left in the extra period. He was open because of a horrible mistake committed by Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace; with the Pistons leading 95-93 and less than 10 seconds on the clock, Horry inbounded the ball to Manu Ginobili, who caught the ball deep in the corner on the left baseline. With a two point lead all the Pistons had to do was not foul and not give up a three and the worst thing that could happen was that the Spurs make a two point shot to send the game to a second overtime. Instead, Wallace double-teamed Ginobili, leaving Horry--who had already made 4 of his 5 three point attempts--wide open. Ginobili passed the ball to Horry, who calmly sank the shot. Detroit Coach Larry Brown tried to take the blame for the fiasco, saying that there was a miscommunication and that ultimately if the players don't understand what to do it is his fault, but basic basketball common sense argues against what Rasheed did in several ways: (1) Don't give up a wide open three point shot when you are ahead by two; (2) the player throwing the inbound pass is very dangerous and is frequently the recipient of an immediate return pass; (3) make players do things that they are not comfortable doing and don't let them do what they do best--in Robert Horry's case, this means at all costs do not let him shoot a stand still, wide open three pointer with the game on the line. When Horry hit a similar shot to beat the Sacramento Kings a few years back, Kings forward Chris Webber said that it was a "lucky" shot and Horry asked if the Kings read the newspaper because he's been making those shots for years. Speaking of Chris Webber, who famously called a timeout in the NCAA Championship game when his Michigan Wolverines had no timeouts left, Rasheed tried to call a timeout with the score tied 89-89 at the end of regulation despite the fact that the Pistons had no timeouts left; fortunately for Rasheed, the clock expired before he signaled for the timeout or the Spurs would have had a chance to win the game by making a technical free throw.

Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich made an interesting defensive adjustment down the stretch, putting Bruce Bowen on Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker on Rip Hamilton. Bowen used his size and strength to harass Billups--who led all scorers with 34 points--into a couple critical misses and Parker defended very well against Rip's game winning attempt at the end of overtime. Popovich chose the perfect time to make this move--if he had done it earlier in the game, the Pistons probably would have found a way to exploit one of these unusual matchups but by waiting until the end of the game to spring this on Detroit the Spurs seemed to catch the Pistons by surprise. On the last couple half court sets the Pistons seemed uncertain if they wanted to post up Rip against Parker or go in a different direction.

With the Spurs heading home up 3-2 we will have to listen to another 48 hours or so of everyone writing off the Detroit Pistons. I've said that the Pistons seem to thrive on adverse situations much like James Bond does, but after game five I thought of a different cinematic comparison. When Han Solo is freed from the carbonite in Return of the Jedi he is temporarily blind and asks what the situation is. Told that things are "same as usual," he replies, "That bad, huh?" Of course, Luke Skywalker proceeds to rout Jabba the Hutt's forces and the good guys emerge unscathed. Detroit has been in similar predicaments before, coming back from 3-2 deficits to beat Miami in this year's Eastern Finals and the two-time defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Nets in last year's playoffs. I would be remiss if I did not note that in both of those series Detroit prevailed by winning one home game and one road game but due to the 2-3-2 format of the Finals the Pistons will have to win two games on the road and they have not won in San Antonio in several years. The first task, though, is to win game six, and the Pistons have been remarkably successful in the sixth game of playoff series for the past several years. If the Pistons remain true to form and prevail in game six then the championship will come down to one game. I realize that the stats and the history are all in the Spurs' favor now, but after all that the Pistons have accomplished during their recent playoff runs I refuse to count them out just yet. Expect another classic, tightly contested game on Tuesday and don't be surprised if these two outstanding teams are playing a game seven on Thursday.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:19 AM

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