AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Turns out that the world's basketball punditry whiffed on the easiest adjustment for the Detroit Pistons to make.
The tweak that resuscitated their season, unmentioned in the buildup to Tuesday night, just might have come from Ben Wallace's hair pick.
Detroit traded a cornrowed Big Ben for a Big Ben in full 'fro and promptly rediscovered "the Ben Wallace that we all know and love," in Chauncey Billups' words. Gone was the guy who looked inexplicably, shockingly sluggish in those first two losses, so sluggish that he topped out at a hard-to-believe eight rebounds.
In this must-win Game 3, No. 3 had seven points, four boards and five blocks after a quarter. Wallace waited all of four seconds, actually, before knocking a ball loose and roaring to the other end for a fast-break dunk that gave the desperate hosts the perfect launch to what would be a 96-79 victory.
It became an even more perfect start just 17 seconds later, when Manu Ginobili knocked knees with Tayshaun Prince and lost a step thereafter, but credit Wallace for maintaining his most consistent energy in weeks to the finish. The 15 points and 11 boards were huge, and maybe bigger was the way he relentlessly jumped out at Ginobili on pick-and-rolls, just as the Seattle SuperSonics did with their bigs in the second round (and just as we advised in Tuesday's Daily Dime).
No way Detroit holds Tim Duncan and Ginobili to a combined 21 points without Wallace's peerless help defense, and more one-on-one coverage of Duncan than we usually see from him.
Of course, while digesting all this, I found myself asking the same question I've been asking since November.
One more time I'll ask: Why, Ben, don't you go 'fro at all times?
It is Wallace himself, remember, who once announced that he "jumps a little higher" when his hair flies freely. "Makes me feel lighter on my feet," he says. Even wife Chanda, after Big Ben was shredded by the nation's press for his inability to punish Nazr Mohammed in San Antonio, told her man before Tuesday's tip to just "let your hair out and play."
To me, all that adds up to the very definition of a head-scratcher.
Pistons insiders counter by telling you that Wallace does adhere to an intricate hair plan: Fear The 'Fro at home, cornrows on the road. Chanda is the only stylist Wallace allows to work on the hair, and she tends to braid it down for Ben so it holds for a whole trip. Easier maintenance, you see.
True to form, Wallace played both games in San Antonio sporting cornrows and a headband.
If you jump higher and feel lighter one way, that strikes me as reason enough to rethink your plan.
The Pistons, though, don't see it that way. If it were my team, I'd make the 'fro mandatory, but after seeing the glare Ben shot at me for asking about his hair schedule after Tuesday's triumph, I can at least understand their perspective. As team president Joe Dumars always tells me: "Who's going to tell Ben he can't wear it the other way?"
They were simply glad to see him roaming anew after a stunning run of five consecutive games with fewer than 10 rebounds. It had been suggested that Wallace got worn down scrapping with Shaquille O'Neal for seven games in the previous round, but Wallace, like Hamilton, is also known as a tireless Energizer Bunny. I never bought that explanation.
"There was nothing wrong with me," Wallace said. "It was just a matter of me not being aggressive enough. I just wasn't playing as active as I should be playing."
"Ben was a man possessed going to the boards," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He didn't let anybody block him out. He didn't care. He just kept going. He was going to get the basketball."
Wallace, in essence, played as he is expected to play, sparking a defense we hadn't seen for a while. Detroit became the first team in Finals history to crack 90 points against the Spurs, in 14 tries, but every Piston credited their defense for the offense. The hosts forced a crucial 18 turnovers, which led to an unforeseen 20-4 edge in fast-break points.
But Billups disputed Wallace nothing-was-wrong claims, insisting that the Pistons' emotional leader couldn't have been all over the floor at the SBC Center like he was back at The Palace.
"I think those first two games came too quick," Billups said. "You've got to understand -- this guy has come off of playing seven games of battling Shaq. Who is going to have energy at that point? And the flights we made and such a quick turnaround to get to San Antonio. I think maybe it wore on him a little bit."
Who is going to have energy at that point?
A guy, perhaps, who says he jumps higher and feels lighter wearing his hair a certain way.
Sadly for Pistons' fans, our news ain't great. I caught Big Ben alone in the locker room for a sec and asked him point-blank: You going with the 'fro for the rest of the series?
He shook his head back and forth twice. Negatory.
If the Pistons can win at least one more game this week and haul these Finals back to the Alamo City, it sounds as though Big Ben will be a cornrowed Wallace out there.
Billups says he'll "make sure that thing will be out on Thursday."
So for Game 4, and Game 5 as well, this is the No. 3 you can expect.