-- The Eastern Conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers begin Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with the story line surrounding Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle.

After leading the Pistons to back-to-back 50-win seasons and an appearance in last year's conference finals, Carlisle was fired by Detroit but hired shortly thereafter by Indiana.

Coaches and players from both teams will no doubt shove the issue to the back burner in the ensuing days, such as some Detroit players did immediately after Thursday's 90-69 Game 7 win over New Jersey in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

"It's not going to be on my mind at all," guard Chauncey Billups said. "We love Rick. Rick was cool. . . . I'm looking forward to it, and I'm sure he's looking forward to it."

But some players couldn't ignore the irony in facing their former coach.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Pistons guard Richard Hamilton said. "But that's how it is. All the buildup is going to be crazy and we've just got to go out and play."

It's a safe bet that Carlisle will be looking forward to the series, given he has the chance at ultimate redemption after being run out of town last May. The Pistons had just been swept in the conference finals by New Jersey, but a coaching change seemed unnecessary.

After Detroit toiled in mediocrity since its consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, Carlisle was hired in May 2001 and orchestrated an 18-win improvement in the 2001-02 season, leading the team to its first conference semifinals appearance since 1991 and a division championship. He was named the league's coach of the year.

Last year the Pistons took the next step and advanced to the conference finals before being dismantled by the Nets, but rumors swirled about Carlisle's job security.

Players quietly griped about what they thought was a structured system that limited any freedom to run or improvise when things went wrong on offense. Pistons team president Joe Dumars began to take issue with Carlisle's reluctance to play younger players such as Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur.

What ultimately sealed Carlisle's fate was a perceived chilly relationship with owner Bill Davidson and his right-hand man, Palace Sports and Entertainment President Tom Wilson.

Finally, Carlisle was fired on May 31, awkwardly sitting alongside Dumars at a news conference explaining the decision at the Pistons' practice facility. A security guard at the Palace of Auburn Hills even tried to prevent Carlisle from entering the arena for the news conference.

Two days later, the Pistons hired Larry Brown, who had earlier resigned from Philadelphia after Carlisle's Pistons dispatched the 76ers in the conference semifinals.

Carlisle ultimately landed on his feet when Pacers General Manager Larry Bird, Carlisle's old friend, hired him. All Carlisle did was lead Indiana to a 61-win regular season and the impending series with the Pistons.

During the regular season the Pacers won three of the four games with the Pistons, including an 89-87 opening night win at Detroit that had the usually stoic Carlisle flash a smile after the game.

With familiarity working for both sides, the series arguably will be a chess match unlike any other in recent playoff memory.

"They like to grind," Hamilton said. "We know what Rick presents from how he coached us last year.

"It should be fun."