AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - If Tim Duncan still is one of the very best in basketball today, it's time to play like it again.
The San Antonio Spurs aren't going to win this without him.
Duncan was outstanding in the first two games, San Antonio victories, but he struggled through the next two losses in Detroit, putting the burden for this series and for another turnaround squarely on his back.
"If he plays well, we all seem to play well," said Spurs forward Robert Horry. "If he plays poorly, then we kind of play poorly at times. It kind of trickles down to the rest of us."
The winner tonight will become a heavy favorite to win the series. Of the 23 previous NBA Finals that were tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 won the championship 23 times.
"Everyone knows this is a must-win game for us," Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. "We can't let them outplay us again."
The Spurs lost Game 3 by 17 points. They lost Game 4 by 31 points. It's no coincidence that Duncan's production dropped significantly, leading to the poor performances.
In two victories, Duncan averaged 21 points and 14 rebounds and shot 46.9 percent from the field. In two losses, he averaged just 15 points and 13 rebounds and shot 31.3 percent.
"It's just frustrating, because especially at this time of the year, and on this stage, you feel like those shots should be going down for me," Duncan said. "I'm the leader of this team. I have to be the leader, so it starts with me."
Duncan is the only two-time regular season Most Valuable Player in the NBA today. He also won MVP in the 1999 and 2003 NBA Finals. It was in those two Game 5s when he really excelled, dominating both games. In 1999, he had 29 points and 17 rebounds. In 2003, he had 31 points and nine rebounds.
"He just has to figure out a way to get the ball in the hole," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "He'll continue getting the ball. They aren't fronting him or anything like that. He'll figure it out."
In defending their NBA title, the Pistons have raised the level of their aggressiveness, especially on defense in the past two games. They have scored easily in transition, snagged plenty of offensive rebounds and locked down the Spurs' backcourt of Parker and Manu Ginobili.
If the Pistons win Game 5, it may look eerily similar to what the Los Angeles Lakers did to the Spurs in the conference semifinal round last season, losing the first two but winning four straight.
Last season in the Finals, the Pistons smothered the Lakers in all three games in Detroit to win the title.
"Tim is our main guy. Everyone knows that," Ginobili said before practice yesterday. "He didn't play well in the last two. It's a good thing that the leader of this team takes so much responsibility, takes it so seriously, but we all know it's a matter of everybody."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.