Pistons, Spurs to tangle in a rare Game 7

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The NBA will play its first Finals winner-take-all in 11 years.

SAN ANTONIO -- One of the most vivid memories Robert Horry has from the last Game 7 in NBA Finals history was New York Knicks guard John Starks firing up shot after shot after shot after shot -- almost none of which went in.

It was a meltdown of epic proportions that to this day will bring a cringe to the face of any Knicks fan who witnessed it.

Eleven shots went up from 3-point range, each one missing. Overall, Starks shot 2-for-18.

"From my end, I loved seeing it," said Horry, who played for the Houston Rockets in 1994, when they defeated the Knicks 90-84 to win the first of consecutive titles. "I'm hoping John Starks' spirit will go into Chauncey (Billups) or one of them."

The pressure of Game 7 will be equal for both Horry's San Antonio Spurs and Billups' Detroit Pistons tonight in the last game of the NBA season. The team that responds best will walk away with the championship.

There hasn't been a winner-take-all game in the finals since June 22, 1994, and San Antonio hasn't been involved in one since the 1990 Western Conference semifinals in David Robinson's rookie season.

But the Spurs do have Horry, who has been on the winning team in his last five Game 7s. He was with the Rockets in their championship seasons of 1994 and 1995, and was a Laker when Los Angeles won the 2000 and 2002 titles.

"I remember the feeling after all five of them," Horry said. "That's one of the most joyous experiences in your life, right up there with having kids. It's candy. It's sweet to you. You just want to keep going and have more."

Playing in a Game 7 will be nothing new for the Pistons, who knocked off the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals 2 1/2 weeks ago and dispatched the New Jersey Nets in Game 7 of the conference semifinals last year.

The Pistons trailed 3-2 in both series, as they did in this one, and another clutch performance would bring a back-to-back title and the enhanced legacy that comes attached. In their last 10 games with a chance to eliminate an opponent, the Pistons are 10-0.

Most of the Spurs will be experiencing a Game 7 in person for the first time. Tim Duncan has never played in one, nor have starters Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Nazr Mohammed.

"You have a lot of pressure, and sometimes the pressure will burst the pipes, sometimes the pressure will make diamonds," Horry said. "You have to have a cocky confidence. This team, we developed it in the Phoenix series, and I think it'll come out."

Of the 15 previous Game 7s in NBA history, the road team has won only three times. Also, no team has ever won the final two games on the road since the 2-3-2 format was adopted in 1985, and no team has ever won two Game 7s on the road in a single postseason. Detroit will try to do that against a team that hasn't lost consecutive home games all season.

To hear the Pistons tell it, anyone who thinks those trends will have any bearing on Thursday night's outcome is misguided. They've shown time and again their impervious nature when confronted with dire circumstances, and the way they outperformed San Antonio in Game 6 -- leaving lost, bewildered looks on the faces of the Spurs -- augers well going into the biggest game of the year.

"I love it," Billups said. "I think so many players just get a little too excited and get a little too impatient. That's where I come in with that calm demeanor, just staying poised out there and playing this Game 7 like it's Game 1."

Starks was similarly confident on the eve of Game 7 in 1994 after carrying the Knicks through that series. But his final game brickfest ended up being one of the defining moments of his career.

Pat Riley, who coached the Knicks at the time, said years later that one of the biggest regrets of his career was not taking Starks out in favor of veteran Rolando Blackman, who sat idle the entire 48 minutes.

But while Starks' 2-for-18 night was dreadful, fewer people remember the play that ultimately doomed the Knicks in that loss, a full-court baseball pass by Charles Oakley that sailed past everyone and into the stands late in the fourth quarter.

Rasheed Wallace, who made is own boneheaded lapse by leaving Horry open at the 3-point line at the end of Game 5, showed through his performance in Game 6 that he has already overcome his moment of mental atrophy.

"You can't look at it like a do-or-die situation. You've just got to go out there and hoop," Wallace said. "No pressure for us. Pressure busts pipes, we don't bust pipes."

Detroit went 8-for-17 from 3-point range in Game 6 after shooting 8-for-41 from behind the arc in the first three games, and turned the ball over only six times after setting an NBA Finals record low with four in Game 4. The finals record for fewest turnovers in a seven-game series is 87 by Detroit in 1988, and this year's Pistons, with 60 thus far, are all but certain to shatter it.

Billups is the Pistons' leading contender to be named MVP of the series if Detroit wins, while Manu Ginobili has been the Spurs' key cog in each of their victories.

In an admission not often uttered by pro athletes on the eve of big games, both Ginobili and Duncan said they'd be nervous in the hours leading up to Game 7. The Pistons were making no such concessions, a sign that the edge in confidence might be tilted in Detroit's favor.

"Against them, anything can happen," Ginobili said. "But I think we're going to be fine."

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