AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- "My inspiration?" Kirk Hinrich was saying in the locker room afterward. "I don't know. Pride. Wanting to win. Wanting to play better."
That was the quote Hinrich gave me before he caught himself, contradicted himself and reverted to his usual dullsville form, denying anything special had inspired him to produce his best game of the series, a 17-point, 13-assist testament to virtuosity that sent this suddenly suspenseful series back to Chicago for a Game 6.
"Pride" was the key word Hinrich blurted out, and we now know that he has plenty. Because after four games in which Chauncey Billups was the dictator of the pace of play, the person through whom the character of the entire series was being manifested, Hinrich took over that role Tuesday night and emptied the building by the midpoint of the fourth quarter.
Whether it was his defense on Billups (after guarding Richard Hamilton for the first four games) or his penetration on offense, repeatedly splitting the seams in the defense to create open shots for both himself and his teammates, it was Hinrich who put his stamp on this game and took the next big step in the post-Baby Bulls maturation process.
"We've come a ways," Hinrich said. "For a lot of us the second round was new ground, we came in and kind of got overwhelmed. Kind of got hit in the mouth, and now we're relaxed, fighting and playing pretty well."
The final box score showed that Hinrich was the only Chicago starter who failed to convert at least half of his shots, going 6-for-15 from the floor. But break it down quarter by quarter, and his lines tell a much more involved story:
• First quarter, 3-for-4 from the field with five assists and no turnovers as Chicago ended the period ahead 31-25.
• Second quarter: 1-for-4 from the field, the only bucket coming on a 3-pointer that extended the Bulls' lead from four to seven. The Pistons never got within four again.
• Third quarter: 2-for-3 from the field with another five assists and just one turnover, the final assist coming on a 3-pointer by Ben Gordon that ended an 18-3 run that put the Bulls up 90-67.
• Fourth quarter: 0-for-4 from the field before he sat down for good with 4:28 left. But as you know if you watched the game, the fourth quarter was pretty much garbage time, and Hinrich's 0-for-4 in the period had about as much effect on the outcome as Dale Davis' DNP.
Pistons owner Bill Davidson rose gingerly from his baseline seat with 6:02 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team trailing 101-81, and he was in the back of his limo and heading off into the rainy night just a few minutes later, joining the stream of vehicles exiting The Palace parking lot in disgust after the home team again failed to put its foot on the accelerator and finish off the job.
"We're not good with cushions. Unfortunately, we've done this before, time and time again," Billups said afterward. "We know what we have to do. We have to go into hostile territory and win there, but we've done it before. We did it last week. We just got to lock in, man."
So we're headed back to Chicago, where the next chapter in this drama will play out on Thursday night, the Bulls trying to force a Game 7 before they go for the ultimate shocker, trying to become the first team in NBA history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
If a Game 7 is necessary, it won't take place until Monday night, which would give both teams three full days to ponder the ups and downs and highs and lows of a series that has had some life breathed into it by a Bulls team that no longer looks so vastly overmatched.
"They still need to win just one game and we need to win two, so the pressure is still on us," Ben Wallace said.
But that pressure could shift clearly and decisively onto the Pistons before this series is said and done, and that actually might not be a bad thing for Detroit. It was a year ago that they dropped three straight games to Cleveland in the second round, watching a 2-0 series lead morph into a 3-2 deficit.
The Pistons were at their best in the final two games of that series to reach the conference finals, but it took so much out of them that there wasn't enough left in the tank to get past Miami.
Just a few days ago, the Pistons were insisting they had learned their lesson from that experience, that this year was going to be different. Then they went out and won Game 3 with an inspired comeback that proved them true to their word, but since then they've reverted to form. They were a step slow all over the court Tuesday night, a nonaggressor facing an underdog too inexperienced to realize that its chances for success had all but dried up.
In other words, the Bulls were too stubborn to realize that they were the inferior team, and the Pistons were too haughty to realize that if they don't play with the same energy and confidence they showed in Games 1, 2 and 3, they can be as beatable as the Grizzlies.
So what we have now is a series in which both teams are learning more about themselves than would have seemed possible just a couple days ago, and it'll only get better from here if both teams can bring their pride, their execution and their desperation on the same night.
We haven't seen that yet, but this thing ain't over. And if Game 6 goes the same way as Game 5, the truth of the matter is that this series -- a week after it officially started -- has only just begun.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.