AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – The battles between Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace date to their days on opposite ends of Tobacco Road, when Wake Forest played North Carolina and the two young big men were just starting down the path that has led them to these NBA Finals.

They faced each other for two years in college, and now for eight years in the pros, giving Wallace hundreds of minutes of firsthand experience learning the ins and outs of Duncan’s game. That inside information has helped the forward with the scruffier beard make the two-time finals MVP look almost ordinary.

“You can go back and look at the films. It was definitely some great battles,” Wallace recalled Friday while basking in the glow of another superior defensive effort on Duncan as the Detroit Pistons evened the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at two games apiece.

Duncan shot just 5-for-17 while being guarded at different times by Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess. And Duncan’s inability to generate any kind of offensive consistency was one of the key factors in the Spurs getting trounced by 31 points against a team they handled with ease in Games 1 and 2.

Game 5 is Sunday night, the complexion of the series having done a complete flip-flop over the course a few days. The Pistons have ratcheted up the defensive intensity they’ve become known for, making the series more physical while routing the Spurs in two straight games.

All the momentum has swung to the team whose versatility, length and intensity have overwhelmed the Spurs while making the prospect of a second straight championship in Detroit look a whole lot brighter than it did when the week began.

“We’re close. We’re licking our chops,” guard Richard Hamilton said.

Duncan is averaging only 18.0 points in the series, down from his overall playoff average of 23.5, and shooting 39 percent from the field – a drop of more than 11 percentage points from his career average.

The Pistons also have shut down Manu Ginobili, the star of the first two games, while forcing the Spurs into clusters of turnovers that have produced game-turning easy shot opportunities.

Detroit committed only four miscues to San Antonio’s 18 in Game 4 on Thursday night while receiving double-figure scoring from seven players.

“I think there’s one difference: I think I’m really concerned about the way we’ve reacted to their physical play. That really bothers me, and I think that that’s got to be handled or we’re going to have a problem,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Detroit’s defensive prowess has manifested itself in many ways, including backcourt ball pressure on San Antonio’s guards and Tayshaun Prince’s steering of Ginobili away from the lane.

But the biggest contribution, by far, has come from the three big men taking away the Spurs’ preference for generating their offense through Duncan.

“They are very different in what they do. They throw a lot of different bodies at you, and Ben and Rasheed and Dice do so many different things,” Duncan said. “They have been effective, so yes, it does affect me. But at the same time, I believe I’ve gotten a lot of shots that on a regular basis I would knock down, and I hope to do that in the next game.”

The primary defender has been Rasheed Wallace, who has the uncommon ability to anticipate Duncan’s next move and disrupt it, either by poking and slapping at the ball when Duncan has it at waist level, or by altering his shot trajectory with his long arms.

“He’s day, I’m night,” Wallace said. “The only thing we have in common is that emotional charge, we just show it in different ways.”

The former North Carolina forward tried to share the credit by pointing out the help he’s receiving from weak side defenders. But the Pistons usually eschew double-teams and leave Sheed operating solo with the knowledge he enhanced by facing Duncan four times each season during his 71/2 years with the Portland Trail Blazers.

“Looking at his face, and how his body language was when we made a play on him,” McDyess said of Duncan, “he would kind of look around at the refs and start throwing his hands up. That’s rare to see him do that.”

Rasheed Wallace said he rarely watches film of his matchups with Duncan, his anticipation of Duncan’s next moves instead coming from having seen them, up close, dozens upon dozens of times.

“Depends on which side of the block he’s on, or whether he took a dribble already. A lot of little things come into play, but the reaction has to be quick to it,” Wallace said. “He might fake one way, and he has the tendency to come back to the middle with a hook or a jump hook, or to fake middle and come back baseline off the glass. You just have to look at a lot of things real quick.”

Thursday’s 31-point margin of victory was the largest in the Finals since Indiana defeated the Los Angeles Lakers by 33 points in Game 5 of the 2000 championship series.

The Spurs had only five double-digit losses during the regular season and one in the first three rounds of the playoffs – a 12-point defeat against Seattle in Game 4 of the second round.

Their worst loss of the regular season was a 36-point defeat against Dallas on April 7, but they bounced back in their next two games with two of their highest-scoring games of the season, tallying 125 points against the Clippers and 136 against Golden State.

The challenge facing them now is twofold: Get past what’s transpired over the last two games, and get back to the things they were doing so well in Games 1 and 2.

“We knew it was going to be very hard here. What we didn’t know was that it was going to be so hard, because they are really killing us,” Ginobili said.

AP-ES-06-17-05 1853EDT


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