Eight months after it all started, the NBA Finals begin Sunday, and it's predictably the Los Angeles Lakers' title to lose. Oh, the circuitous route
to reach the Finals against the Detroit Pistons was as inventive and unpredictable as any traveled by this storied franchise, but that certainly
doesn't mean it's not going to happen.
They just happen to be far less endearing than these Pistons. Despite the preposterous lack of scoring, Detroit's blue-collar approach has produced
one of the great defenses in history and is winning the hearts and minds of NBA fans.
The rugged, go-for-it-at-all-costs attitude of players who went unappreciated by their former teams is why the fans in the Palace of Auburn Hills are
there early, are loud and hang with their team through rain, sleet and snow.
They are the antithesis of the Lakers. You know all about the team with four future Hall of Famers, the coach with the best winning percentage in
history and a season that has been so improbably filled with sidebars, it could only happen in the shadow of Hollywood.
It's a love 'em or hate 'em group that is just so L.A., punctuated by the Staples Center fans who stroll in throughout the game and aren't into it
until the fourth quarter.
L.A.id back is an understatement.
Nothing would feel better than to predict a Pistons championship.
Can't do it.
The Lakers will win it.
For all of Detroit's defense and can't-quit attitude, they don't have the manpower to offset 7-1, 350-pound Shaquille O'Neal and the open-floor
wizardry of Kobe Bryant. Once those two are on task and motivated, they simply dominate every game with their extraordinary skills. Then there are the
additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and the irrepressible contributions of guard Derek Fisher from the bench.
There is no magic to it. It's up to them, and they know it. The boredom that has constantly seeped in during the regular season and often during these
playoffs should vanish in the Finals because, well, it's the Finals!
The unlikely script began to unfold in July when aging free-agent stars Malone and Payton eschewed much bigger contracts to play for a title with
incumbent superstars O'Neal and Bryant, figuring to rebound from a down spring of 2003 to claim their fourth title in five seasons. No coach was
better suited to galvanize four Hall of Fame players than Phil Jackson, who won six titles in nine years with the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen
Chicago Bulls and three more in his first three seasons conducting the Shaq and Kobe Show. This one would push him past Red Auerbach for the most
rings in history.
Within days of Malone and Payton verbally agreeing to deals, Bryant was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at a resort in
Eagle, Colo., where he had gone for minor knee surgery against club wishes. Undaunted, Malone and Payton still signed on the dotted line, and the
Lakers still began the season 18-3 with the buzz predicting 65-70 victories -- until things began to unravel.
Back in Motown, coach Rick Carlisle was stunningly fired the previous spring after successive Central Division titles, and Larry Brown surprisingly
bolted Philadelphia to take over. Built around uber-rebounder/defender Ben Wallace and the hope of offensive explosiveness from the young backcourt of
Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, the Pistons picked up a head of steam after a stuttering start.
But they needed something else, and team president Joe Dumars began working on acquiring highly paid free-agent-to-be Rasheed Wallace, a 6-11,
250-pounder the Portland Trail Blazers were looking to move to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, things were on shaky ground in Los Angeles. The players were lashing out at each other. Bryant and O'Neal were slowed by injuries. Malone
was knocked out for the first time in his 19 seasons with a knee injury. Payton was barely holding the team together running an offense that didn't
suit him at all. The can't-miss team was now missing on all cylinders going into the All-Star break.
In Detroit, Dumars finally was able to work around the Blazers' over-the-top demands for Wallace. The Blazers got what they wanted from the Atlanta
Hawks, who were looking to dump as many salaries as possible. And when Dumars went back to the Hawks with more players whose contracts were ending,
the Hawks obliged with Wallace. And just to assure more money to help keep young big man Mehmet Okur, Dumars also sent veteran point guard Chucky
Atkins to Boston for younger and quicker Mike James.
Out of the break, the Lakers won 22 of 26, then began to stumble again the final two weeks after putting pressure on the fading Sacramento Kings in
the Pacific Division. And then on the last night of the season, the Kings lost to the Golden State Warriors, and Bryant set another new standard for
his spectacular play. Not only did he sink a fading 3-pointer to force overtime in Portland with one second left, in the second OT, he took a pass
from Payton, went straight up and sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a one-point victory and the second seed in the West.
Fate was at it again.
The Pistons went 20-5 after acquiring Wallace and finished with the second-best record in the East behind the Indiana Pacers. But 'Sheed had begun to
struggle with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and it carried over into the playoffs. In the first round, they lost Game 2 at home to Milwaukee,
the first home team to lose in the playoffs, but got back on track to win the series in five.
The Lakers responded in kind after a rocky beginning against the Houston Rockets, then in the second round fell behind 0-2 to the defending champion
San Antonio Spurs. They looked finished until Payton mouthed off about the team not being together and blaming him for the way the Spurs were running
their offense uncontested. They woke up to crush the Spurs over the next four games.
And the lynchpin of the season might very well be the 18-foot prayer Derek Fisher sank on inbounds pass from Payton with .4 seconds remaining in Game
5. It was that fate thing again.
The Pistons had no easy task dispensing of the defending East champion New Jersey Nets in seven, but Hamilton was the emerging offensive star of the
Eastern Conference playoffs. Coupled with their stout interior defense led by the Wallaces, they were ready for the Pacers, who physically began to
fall apart and just didn't have enough to cope.
The Pistons put them away in six.
The Lakers put away the Timberwolves in six as well, showing few cracks, other than their typical lapses of energy.
And that is the Pistons' only hope: lapses of energy and focus by the Lakers. There's no question the Pistons have the energy to unmask a lack of will
in the Lakers. Maybe Bryant will begin to freelance with the ball too much again, anger his teammates and fracture the focus. Maybe they won't get
O'Neal the ball enough, and he'll become distracted.
That's all possible. But that's where Big Chief Triangle comes in: coach Phil Jackson. He isn't going to let it happen for more than a game or two.
This is destiny to get Malone and Payton rings. It's his destiny to win a 10th title and ride off on his motorcycle into a Montana sunset.
The Lakers in seven.
By Mike Kahn
[Edited on 4/6/04 by TRD]