Turn Back the Clock

Spurs edge Pistons as Big Ben, Duncan lock horns in a thriller

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Rodney Stuckey was at the center of one of the most unlikely and exciting comebacks the Pistons have staged at The Palace in a long while. Trailing by 15 when San Antonio rookie Kawhi Leonard opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer, the Pistons went on a 23-6 spurt to take a lead by the midway point of the period. Stuckey scored nine points during the run and finished with 23, making 8 of 12 shots and getting to the foul line 10 times, as the Pistons came up just short in a 99-95 loss to San Antonio as the Spurs ran their winning streak to eight.

BLUE COLLAR – On a night Ben Wallace set a post-merger record for most games played (1,055) by an undrafted player, he did more than make it a token appearance. With Greg Monroe frustrated by several easy misses and non-calls, Lawrence Frank put Wallace in midway through the third quarter – a much earlier move than usual – and the 37-year-old was still out there to spark a 23-6 run early in the fourth quarter as the Pistons rallied from 15 points down to take the lead. Wallace finished with nine points, five boards and two assists – a jump shot and a 3-pointer, only the seventh of his career, were keys to the fourth-quarter rally – and his defense on Tim Duncan limited the Hall of Famer to six second-half points. He played the final 18 minutes of the game without a break.

RED FLAG – The Pistons played hard, with noticeably more energy than they managed in Sunday’s loss to Washington, when their legs appeared dead. They just didn’t play with great precision. They sometimes played a little too fast on offense and a little too loosely on defense, overextending and allowing the heady Spurs passing lanes for cuts to the basket. The Spurs scored 40 points in the game’s first 17 minutes. They didn’t keep up that pace, but the big hole the Pistons dug for themselves gave them little margin for error late – after they expended huge gobs of energy erasing a 15-point deficit – and they couldn’t match San Antonio’s cold-blooded execution in the closing minutes.

On Valentine’s Day, the Pistons’ heart was in the right place. It just wasn’t always in sync with their arms and legs or head. That got them 15 points behind the San Antonio Spurs early in the fourth quarter, when the last thing anyone expected was a finish that evoked the 2005 NBA Finals.

But that’s what happened, right down to an epic battle of two All-Star staples of the first decade of the new millennium, Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan. The Pistons came all the way back to take a lead, but the Spurs – as they seem to have done since Duncan walked into the league 15 years ago – made just enough more plays in the last two minutes to pull out a 99-95 win, their eighth straight.

The romantic ending to close Cupid’s day would have called for Wallace – on the occasion of setting the modern-day NBA record for most games played by an undrafted player at 1,055 – to go out a winner on a day he played like he was 27, not 37.

With Greg Monroe frustrated by easy missed shots and no favorable whistles, Lawrence Frank went to Wallace unusually early in the second half – 6:12 left in the third quarter. The old guy never took a seat.

He and Rodney Stuckey led the charge, too, a 24-6 run that spanned 6:35 of the fourth quarter. It began with a 15-foot jump shot from Wallace. A few minutes later, he hit a 3-pointer – the seventh of his career – with the shot clock about to blare that cut their deficit to single digits.

“Ben Wallace and Rodney Stuckey, they helped change the game for us,” Frank said.

The Spurs, as Gregg Popovich has long done, went to their Hack-a-Ben strategy, fouling him three times in 24 seconds. Wallace made 3 of 6. Frank never considered taking him out.

“He earned the right to be in there,” Frank said. “Ben turned the game around. I have full confidence. No one puts more time in the gym than Ben Wallace. I was very, very comfortable with him at the free-throw line.”

Stuckey finished with 23 points and eight assists, Wallace with nine points, five rebounds, a block and a steal. But it was in all of Frank’s more obscure stats – the rock-solid screens set that freed jump shooters, the more disciplined pick-and-roll defense that greatly slowed San Antonio’s scoring spree – where Wallace earned Frank’s trust and all of that playing time.

“Two old guys trying to get it done for their team, man,” Wallace grinned about logging the 18 straight minutes and banging for position with Duncan in the closing minutes of another hotly contested game.

“It was an exciting game for me to have an opportunity to play against Tim and Pop over there,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of history with those guys. This is one of those games I knew everybody would get up for, everybody would come ready to play, and for the most part we did that. We went out there, put up a good fight, got down but continued to stay in the game, continued to fight and made things happen.”

Respect is a two-way street for the few remaining holdovers of that classic 2005 Finals series that went the distance. When the Pistons acknowledged Wallace’s games record between the first and second quarters, Popovich and the Spurs rose and applauded right along with the home crowd.

“I think (Wallace) did a great job against Timmy and he hit a couple of jump shots,” Popovich said. “When he was shooting them, I have to admit – I hope he won’t be mad at me – but we’d rather have Ben shoot it than Tayshaun (Prince). I think Ben knows that, too. He won’t hate me for that, but he knocked them down.”

It was a 3-pointer from a more expected source, Richard Jefferson, that put the Spurs up 90-89 with 2:21 left. The Pistons tied it at 90 and again at 91 when Wallace twice split a pair of free throws, then Tony Parker’s driving layup gave the Spurs the lead for good. A Ben Gordon tying triple attempt with 25 seconds left missed and Gordon, who thought he was fouled, drew a technical for protesting.

“Five of the last six games, we’ve played high-level basketball,” Frank said. “It’s not always going to be a beautiful picture, but we showed some resolve. San Antonio wanted to win the game. Talented group. This is their eighth win in a row. Our guys could have wilted and they kept on fighting. If a couple of things go a different way, maybe it’s a different outcome.”