2005: Spurs versus Pistons (Duncan’s Third Finals)

Background

After winning the 2003 NBA Finals, the Spurs looked well on their way to repeating the next season before Derek Fisher’s game-winner with 0.4 seconds left in game five of the Western Conference semifinals put San Antonio in a 3-2 hole. The Spurs would lose the series and key contributors like David Robinson and Stephen Jackson had since departed, but the team would remain at the top of their conference with 59 wins and the number two seed entering the 2005 playoffs. In the first round, San Antonio easily defeated the Denver Nuggets in five games. The Spurs then outlasted the Seattle SuperSonics in six games–thanks to a game-winner in the last by Tim Duncan. The Western Conference Finals pitted the Spurs against the number one seed and high-scoring Phoenix Suns led by league MVP Steve Nash. San Antonio had surprisingly little trouble and eliminated the Suns in five games to reach their third NBA Finals in franchise history.

The Pistons won the 2004 title and returned the same starting lineup the following season. Thanks to an elite defense–anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace–Detroit again won 54 games and emerged as the number two seed entering the playoffs. In the first round, the Pistons easily dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers in five games. The second round pitted the Pistons against the Indiana Pacers, the other team involved in a brawl earlier in the season at the Palace of Auburn Hills resulting in multiple suspensions. Detroit advanced after a six-game series, reaching their third straight Eastern Conference Finals. Facing the Miami Heat, led by newly acquired MVP candidate Shaquille O’Neal and budding star Dwyane Wade, the Pistons trailed 2-1 and 3-2 after three and five games respectively, but Detroit won game six to force a seventh in Miami. With an upset victory on the road, the Pistons moved on to their second straight NBA Finals.

Lineups

The Spurs’ starting back court was comprised of point guard Tony Parker and first-time All-Star shooting guard Manu Ginobili. Bruce Bowen remained the lock-down defensive small forward in the front court next to two-time MVP Tim Duncan at power forward and center Nazr Mohammed, acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Knicks.

San Antonio used a relatively short bench, with Brent Barry serving as the primary backup at both guard spots and small forward. Former Laker Robert Horry functioned as the third big man off the bench. Rookie Beno Udrih played irregularly as the fourth guard off the bench, and Devin Brown saw limited time in the Finals, as did regular season center Rasho Nesterovic, former Bucks star Glenn Robinson, and Tony Massenburg.

The Pistons’ starting lineup remained unchanged from the 2004 NBA Finals. Chauncey Billups was the starting point guard next to Richard Hamilton at shooting guard. Lanky defender Tayshaun Prince played small forward next to Rasheed Wallace at power forward and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace at center.

Detroit also used a short bench, with Lindsey Hunter serving as the primary backup at both guard spots and newcomer Antonio McDyess functioning as the third big man. Carlos Arroyo was used infrequently as the fourth guard, and Darvin Ham, Darko Milicic, Elden Campbell, and Ronald Dupree saw few minutes in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Pistons 69, Spurs 84

The Spurs started off sluggishly in the first quarter and quickly found themselves down by double digits. Staying the course, San Antonio battled back and took the lead in the second half. Manu Ginobili erupted in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his 26 points in the final period to lead the Spurs to a game one victory. Duncan was steady with 24 points and 17 rebounds, and Parker chipped in with 15 points of his own. Billups led the Pistons with 25 points, but Hamilton and Prince struggled from the field on a combined 33%. Detroit appeared limited by fatigue in the second half and now trailed the series 1-0.

Game Two: Pistons 76, Spurs 97

The Pistons were eager to make up for their loss in the series opener, but game two saw the Spurs run away with the second victory at home. Detroit shot a collective 40% from the floor, repeatedly missed shots from point-blank range, and make none of their six three-point attempts. San Antonio was again led by Ginobili’s game-high 27 points, Bruce Bowen chipped in four three-pointers, and Duncan contributed a solid double-double. The Spurs now held a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to Detroit.

Game Three: Spurs 79, Pistons 96

Desperate to win their first game of the series back at home, the Pistons trailed after the first quarter of game three but won the next three quarters by a 23-point margin. Billups and Hamilton combined for 44 points, and the Pistons’ front court provided excellent defense on Duncan and held him to 14 points on 33% shooting. Parker led the Spurs in scoring with 21 points, but San Antonio finally dropped a game in the series as the Pistons looked much more comfortable at home.

Game Four: Spurs 71, Pistons 102

The Pistons again held serve at home and won game four in a dominating effort to tie the series at two games apiece. The Spurs collectively shot 37% from the field and committed 17 turnovers. Seven different Detroit players scored in double figures in the victory, and momentum clearly looked to have shifted to the Eastern Conference champions. Up to this point, the home team had won every game of the series with one more contest remaining in Detroit.

Game Five: Spurs 96, Pistons 95 (OT)

The most evenly matched game of the series up to this point saw numerous lead changes as the Spurs and Pistons traded blows in the second half. “Big Shot” Robert Horry emerged to lead San Antonio in the fourth quarter to keep his team in the game, making clutch baskets time and time again to carry the offensive load. The Spurs trailed late in overtime after four quarters was not enough to settle game five, and Horry converted a driving left-handed dunk while being fouled. With the Pistons clinging to a two-point lead, San Antonio had possession with under ten seconds left. Horry inbounded the ball to Ginobili, who then quickly returned it to the power forward who buried a three-pointer to give the Spurs the lead for good. He finished with 21 points to complement Duncan’s 26/19 double-double as San Antonio took the pivotal fifth game of the series. Billups’ 34 points fell by the wayside as Detroit faced a must-win game six back in Texas.

Game Six: Pistons 95, Spurs 86

The Pistons rebounded on the road in a must-win game six, Billups and Hamilton again leading the way with a combined 44 points. The Spurs countered with a two-headed offensive attack resulting in Ginobili and Duncan’s combined 42 points. Detroit held onto a tight lead late in the fourth quarter thanks to clutch free throw shooting, and the series was now tied at three games apiece with a seventh deciding contest taking place in San Antonio. After four straight games to open the series won by the home team, the road team had now won the last two games in tight match-ups.

Game Seven: Pistons 74, Spurs 81

Only two teams in history at this point had lost an NBA Finals series after leading 2-0, and the Spurs were looking to avoid becoming the third. After the Pistons built a nine-point lead midway through the third quarter, Tim Duncan took it upon himself to bring San Antonio back. The Spurs climbed back into the game and retook the lead behind a steady dose of Duncan scoring in the post, and the power forward turned in another stellar double-double with 25/11. Ginobili continued his excellent offensive play with 23 points of his own to go along with an excellent perimeter shooting performance that saw the Spurs make 7/11 three-pointers. Detroit kept the game close in the final minutes but free throw shooting helped San Antonio hang on to win their third NBA championship in franchise history. For his consistent play, Duncan was awarded the NBA Finals MVP for the third time in his career.

Aftermath

Coming off their third NBA title, the Spurs ran away with the top seed in 2006 after winning a franchise-best 63 games, but their hopes at repeating were again dashed by in-state rival the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals. San Antonio would remain relevant with little roster turnover, however, the following season and returned to the NBA Finals in 2007 after defeating the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals–the fourth championship series in franchise history.

Coach Larry Brown would buy out his contract with the Pistons, but newcomer coach Flip Saunders would keep Detroit at the top of the Eastern Conference. With a franchise-best 64 wins in 2006, the Pistons would again reach the Eastern Conference Finals but fall to the Miami Heat. Detroit would reach the same series the next two years in 2007 and 2008 to make it six straight appearances but fail to reach the NBA Finals with the same core roster intact. Billups’ departure in 2009 signaled the start of the Detroit rebuild.

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