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The key to the game was the Detroit backcourt. Hamilton (game-high 23 points) shook loose from the flypaper defense of Bowen and even played three minutes of the fourth period without his protective mask. "He ripped it off!" Hamilton shouted after Bowen accidentally raked his arm across Hamilton's face and dislodged it. And though Billups scored 21 points and made five three-pointers, the number that stands out in his line is zero. As in turnovers. The man who handled the ball for 39 minutes against one of the NBA's best defenses did not cough it up once, which stood in stark contrast to the Spurs. "We had too many dry possessions," said Duncan, who finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds but, as he did in Game 5, shot poorly from the free throw line, making five of 10.
For the Spurs, there were many directions for fingers to point. Duncan needed to demand the ball, Ginobili needed to make more intelligent decisions on penetration, Parker needed to run the show with confidence, Horry (eight points, four rebounds) needed to make more of an impact off the bench. All those things would have to come about in Game 7, or that champagne would stay crated.
There were many reasons that the Pistons seemed to be the favorites. Fourteen of Duncan's shots had been blocked in the first six games, leading to the inevitable conclusion that he was either feeling the pain of his sore ankles or didn't have an answer for the smothering Detroit defense, or both. Ginobili's pell-mell forays to the hoop that were so effective early in the series had looked chaotic in Game 6. Parker's quickness was negated by double teams, and he was playing tentatively. Horry had expended his ration of miracles in Game 5. Popovich had made some terrific adjustments, but he was facing the master--also his mentor--in Brown.
Like the coaches, the teams had a mutual respect, which was unusual for such a physical series. The mano a mano between Bowen and the Pistons' Hamilton, for example, was intense and combative but never came close to fisticuffs. Still, a physical series seemed to favor the Pistons, and when they took a 48-39 lead with 7:44 left in the third period, it seemed as if they were on their way to a second straight title.
Then, inexplicably, the momentum changed. Was it the short jumper by Parker, who to that point had been discombobulated by the pressure? A Ginobili steal? A block by Horry? Horry finding Ginobili for a dunk, after which Ginobili exhorted the crowd? Referee Joey Crawford telling former Spur-TV analyst Sean Elliott to "sit down and shut up" after he popped out of his seat at the press table to protest a call?
It was all those things (except the last). But mostly it was Duncan. From the 6:18 mark of the period until 52 seconds remained, Duncan, who had only eight points in the first half, scored 12. And he beat his old bugaboo in the process, making all four of his free throws as the Spurs took their first lead since 2:30 in the second period. Still, a Parker air ball followed by a Hunter corner jumper as the quarter ended tied the game at 57-57 going into the fourth.
Not on this night. Counting on Duncan inside, Ginobili outside and relying on the stickum defense of Bowen (who covered both Billups and Hamilton), the Spurs took a 72-65 lead on a Ginobili three-pointer with 2:57 left. The Pistons got it back to four, but Bowen, just seconds after Popovich sent him back into the game for defensive purposes, blocked a Billups trey, and that was the ball game.
The Spurs had theorized that Duncan would come out firing, and he did, getting up 27 shots to finish with a game-high 25 points. He also won his third Finals MVP award, just beating out Ginobili, who took 13 shots; with two three-pointers and five free throws he finished with an economical 23 points. Near the end of the game, there was Ginobili racing downcourt after a pass that was over his head, stumbling and almost falling, like a kid running after a hopping toad in a field. It said everything. The passion and energy that seemed to belong to Detroit going into the game had stayed home after all.