AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – Richard Hamilton’s clear, plastic mask has become his trademark, as distinct as his ability to curl around screens and make mid-range jumpers.

Detroit’s shooting guard considers the device protecting his nose that has been broken three times as simply another piece of equipment.

“It’s just like a headband now,” Hamilton said Wednesday. “I wore it all last year. This year, I wear it because I didn’t want to have setbacks because having to have two surgeries last year wasn’t cool at all.”

The Pistons are glad he’s healthy because they need him to perform like he did in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Hamilton scored a game-high 24 points Tuesday, leading the Pistons to a 96-79 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

Trailing the series 2-1, Detroit will host Game 4 Thursday night and Game 5 Sunday night.

Hamilton said he plans to abandon the mask next season.

“This will probably be my last year wearing it,” he said. “I’ll retire it and put it up on the mantel, and have everybody sign it.”

Pistons athletic trainer Mike Abdenour laughed when he heard about Hamilton’s plan.

“We’ll humor him by letting him say that,” Abdenour said. “He was saying the same things last year, so I guess we’ll just have to convince him to wear it again when we get to training camp.” Hamilton said he first broke his nose in 2002, after his third and final season in Washington, and it broke again twice last season. He needed to have surgery each time.

“After the second surgery, Dr. Eugene Rontal, said to him, If you were my son, you’d be wearing that mask,”‘ Abdenour recalled.

Teams construct defenses to slow down Hamilton, and often fail, especially in the playoffs.

Since acquiring Hamilton from the Wizards for Jerry Stackhouse, he has scored at least 20 points in 49 of 61 games and has averaged 21.5 points – 4.3 more than his regular-season clip over six NBA seasons. He helped Detroit win a title last year and contend for one this season.

“I elevate my game to a whole different plateau because this is it, it’s win or go home,” said Hamilton, who won an NCAA title at Connecticut. “You want to do everything possible to win at this point, in college and here in the NBA. It’s something that I get excited about. A lot of people can’t do that, but I just love to take my game to another level.”

A lot of people also can’t stifle Hamilton like Bruce Bowen did in the first two games of the NBA Finals, limiting him to 14 points in each of those games.

“He’s a physical dude,” Hamilton said. “He hits you with all parts of your body – hips, chests, elbows, wrists. He’s very crafty. He won’t use his hands, but he’ll use something else.”

Bowen’s finger found an opening in Hamilton’s mask, hitting his left eye, when he lunged for a steal in Game 3.

“Mask or no mask, he was going to hit me dead in my eye,” Hamilton said.

Bowen wasn’t surprised Hamilton bounced back with a strong performance in Game 3.

“Sometimes we lose sight that he is a good player,” Bowen said. “With a player of his caliber, he’s going to get his points. It’s my job to try to limit him. I did a poor job of chasing him on some screens, and because he is who he is, he made me pay for that.”

Pistons coach Larry Brown said he doesn’t even think about Hamilton wearing a mask anymore, just like he hopes people don’t look at Hamilton as a one-dimensional player.

“Everybody looked at him as a guy that just scores,” Brown said. “Now, I think people recognize that he tries to give it up and he’s an underrated defender. He’s a pretty special player.”

AP-ES-06-15-05 1832EDT

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