AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - It could have ended for the San Antonio Spurs after five minutes. Not necessarily the NBA Finals, not with a chance for two more games at home to win the championship. But any chance of them blotting out the description that haunted them, the one that had chased them for a week at the Palace of Auburn Hills, was trickling away only five minutes into Game 5.
The Spurs' 4-0 start already was a distant memory. They had fallen behind 13-6 in the blink of an eye, the Palace was throbbing with energy and noise. And they were looking ... soft.
But something happened after Gregg Popovich called that timeout five minutes into last night's game, with the Pistons storming to 13 of the previous 15 points, with their key players shying from contact - Tim Duncan fading away to the edges of the lane, Manu Ginobili pulling up and lofting one-handers instead of hurtling himself into the paint. They were being outfought, outhustled, outmanned.
And then it stopped. The Spurs flung themselves into the fray, Duncan and Ginobili and Tony Parker and Robert Horry and the rest tapping into their inner nasty - well, as much of an inner nasty as this team can manage. But it was enough.
The Pistons didn't back down, but all of a sudden, they weren't having their way, and with a little more than minute left in that first quarter, Ginobili exploded down the right baseline into the teeth of the defense, rose, dipped and flipped in a reverse layup to tie the game at 19.
The message was sent, the most important one the Spurs could have sent: You're not going to put us away without a fight. This is a brand-new ballgame.
Because they didn't wilt in the first five minutes, the Spurs got to play an extra five minutes, adding a new element to this series. When they could have curled up in their familiar fetal position, they instead unfurled themselves to their full championship size.
By grinding out a 96-95 overtime victory in a place where they hadn't even competed in the series, the Spurs not only moved within one win of their third title in seven seasons, they also made two significant points.
For one, they gave the Pistons something to think about. Rather than riding into SBC Center with a win and a tidal wave of momentum from a spectacular three games at home, the Pistons now have to win both games in San Antonio - and somehow bring the force in an opposing building that the Spurs, at long last, brought to the Palace last night.
This series desperately needed the sort of big road performance that makes championships memorable and able to stand the test of time. The Spurs got there first.
Plus, the Spurs proved they had a spine. They showed it early and kept showing it, because they had no choice. Their pride was on the line, as well as their history of fold-ups in past years, pre-dating Duncan and Popovich, to the David Robinson era.
Every thrust by the Pistons was parried by the Spurs, and finally, even the last stragglers got on board. Horry, horrible from the moment he got to town, coolly drained a three at the end of the third quarter to regain the lead for the Spurs. They were his first points of the game. He added 13 in the fourth quarter, every shot bigger than the last. And, of course, his last one of the night only added to the illustrious history that has earned him the nickname "Big Shot Bob."
Yet the Pistons, more at ease under these circumstances, matched them shot for shot, mainly with Chauncey Billups auditioning for another Finals MVP trophy.
But the Spurs never let the Pistons run away from them - and certainly not run over them - the way they had in the first two games at the Palace. More than anyone, it was Duncan who kept the pressure on, whether he was scoring or not.
As it should have been. No one's reputation was on the line the way Duncan's was. The image left with everyone after the spanking the Pistons administered in Game 4 was of Duncan sitting morosely on the bench in the final minutes, getting reassuring pats on the knee from his coach, looking thoroughly whipped.
Duncan took responsibility for himself, but he also took heaps of abuse, deservedly so. He made up for it last night, and everybody followed his lead: Ginobili, Parker, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry, especially Horry.
It was heartening to see. It was way past time for either team to get tough on the road. For the Spurs, it was nearly too late.
San Antonio vs. Detroit
Best of seven; *-if necessary
All games on chs. 2, 7
(San Antonio leads series, 3-2)
Game 1: San Antonio, 84-69
Game 2: San Antonio, 97-76
Game 3: Detroit, 96-79
Game 4: Detroit, 102-71
Yesterday: San Antonio, 96-95, OT
Tomorrow: at San Antonio, 9 p.m.
*Thursday: at San Antonio, 9 p.m.