INGLEWOOD, CALIF., JUNE 1 -- Although the pairing of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics in a battle for the NBA championship has become as familiar a springtime event as blossoms on cherry trees, somehow, it just doesn't seem the same this year.

The teams have met in nine previous finals and this will be the third in the last four years. But this year, as the series starts here Tuesday in the Forum (WUSA-TV-9 at 9 p.m.), the Celtics seem overmatched.

Usually, by the time these teams are finished knocking each other around, with Magic Johnson throwing his last no-look pass to James Worthy and Larry Bird making his final three-point basket, summer is virtually upon us.

This season, if the series is played to its seven-game entirety, the last contest would take place June 16 at the Forum. Game 6 would be played two days earlier. But there just aren't many people who expect to return here for those final two games.

As dominant as the teams have been this decade (each winning three championships, with the Philadelphia 76ers sneaking one in in 1983), the Celtics, after two straight physical seven-game series, appear to be hurting badly.

Still, the operative word is "appear." The Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons each thought they had what it took to dethrone last season's champions. The Celtics had other ideas.

"They're winners; Milwaukee and Detroit thought they were better but they didn't get 'em," said Johnson, the NBA's regular season MVP. "Boston is here and they like being here. They didn't come here just to give us a championship. We know what kind of team we're playing."

The Celtics are battered and weary. Center Robert Parish has a sprained ankle and forward Kevin McHale is playing in pain from a stress fracture in his left foot. Guard Danny Ainge missed two games of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit because of a bad knee. He played in the final two games but discovered a dislocated finger after the finale.

"The difference {between last year's title season and this season's struggle in trying to defend the title} is simple," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said after Saturday's 117-114 win over the Pistons. "I look at the players on our team and I ask them 'Are you hurt? Are you hurt?' and I go from there. Last year, we were healthy; now, it's the red bandage around the head, band-aids and someone beating on the drum."

Even so, Boston was savvy enough to snake its way past both the Bucks and Pistons. It's no accident that although the Celtics have lost six playoff games, they've won all five of their contests decided by four points or less.

Detroit had depth and the fresher, younger legs, but it didn't matter in the end. In Boston's four conference final victories, Bird, McHale, Parish, Ainge and Dennis Johnson -- average age of 30.4 -- played more than 92 percent of the possible minutes.

"They're incredibly smart at pacing themselves," said Lakers Coach Pat Riley. "They make all the need plays, the ones you've gotta have. They know the part of the game that's important; it could be in the second quarter, it could be late in the game -- but they smell it and they respond."

But that was infinitely easier to accomplish against the playoff-inexperienced Pistons than against the Lakers, who also know a thing or two about savvy.

The inflammatory comments of Detroit's Dennis Rodman in the aftermath of the Eastern final, calling Bird overrated and a media darling because of his race, already have been defused by the Lakers, who have gone out of their way to disagree.

"That was one of the most ludicrous statements I've ever heard," said Riley. "Do you think we're gonna agree with what that rookie said? He's probably got a wind tunnel between his ears."

That brings us back to the court, where the only wind being kicked up should be the Lakers' fast break. Los Angeles was 65-17 in the regular season and is 11-1 in the playoffs, outscoring its opponents by an average of 123-108. Since March 1, the team's record is 32-4.

"I'm sure we'll be the underdogs," Bird said. "I look for some close games {in Boston}, but they're gonna look to blow us out at the Forum because we haven't been playing well on the road."

Perhaps the Celtics' best chance for an upset victory in the first two games here would be in the series opener because the Lakers have been idle since beating Seattle a week ago.

"I would rather have played a game on Friday or sometime in there, too, but you have to live with the elements," Riley said. "I think our guys are ready to play, they seem invigorated, but in Game 1 it doesn't make any difference. If we play great, people will say it was because we were rested; if we play lousy, people will say we were rusty."

Conversely, the Celtics, who flew cross-country this morning, could plead fatigue should they lose badly in the opener. The Lakers might buy that alibi; what they aren't buying, though, is the extent of all those Boston injuries.

"That's a setup game of theirs and we all know that," said Magic Johnson.

"I don't know if they have as many physical problems as everyone's been saying," said Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Everybody's been impressed that the Celtics are winning despite supposedly being injured so badly. It gives people something to relate to with them."