-- The Lakers began studying the Detroit Pistons Thursday by poring over six-month-old game film, noticing that one player stood out for his perpetual motion, dragging defenders into screens, popping out for jump shots, never seeming to tire.
The Pistons don't score a lot, but when they do, it's often Richard Hamilton, the man in the plastic mask, who could just as easily be another player in recent Lakers playoff history.
"He's just like ol' Reggie Miller in the day," Gary Payton said.
So, the Lakers will put their highest-energy player on Hamilton, a realization that sunk in for Kobe Bryant while he and his teammates studied Hamilton's game Wednesday morning.
Bryant played high school ball against Hamilton in Philadelphia and became animated, anticipating the renewal of a long-running rivalry about to take the ultimate stage Sunday.
Bryant, a three-time member of the NBA's all-defensive first team, dials it up a level whenever he plays Hamilton, a pattern that began when Bryant's Lower Merion High team eliminated Hamilton's Coatesville team in the 1996 Pennsylvania state playoffs, one McDonald's All-American topping another.
Bryant has held the upper hand since, and would like to keep it that way, teammates say.
"When you've played against a guy like that since you were kids, there's definitely a different type of blood that gets flowing," guard Derek Fisher said. "High school and middle school and AAU, those things go back a long way. Both guys being from Pennsylvania, I'm sure it's more personal. I could definitely see how [Bryant] would be a little bit more excited to play against a guy that he's seen for so many years."
Hamilton averaged 17.6 points in the regular season, but Bryant held him to 20 points, total, in two games. Hamilton made 6 of 11 shots and had 14 points in the Pistons 106-96 victory Nov. 18, but scored only six points on 3-of-7 shooting in the Lakers' 94-89 victory Nov. 14.
The Hamilton of the last two months, however, is different from the Hamilton of November.
He is averaging 21.5 points, fifth-best in the playoffs, and hasn't been slowed by the see-through plastic mask he has worn since breaking his nose in March.
"He's in a groove," Payton said. "I think early in the season, he wasn't getting as many looks as he is now. He's getting a lot of calls right now. It's a lot different from the beginning of the year. He's got his confidence more up, and he's shooting the ball real well right now. It's going to be hard to guard a guy like that."
Familiarity has fueled the Bryant-Hamilton rivalry, not necessarily an unfriendly one.
Bryant, who went directly to the NBA from Lower Merion, sometimes regretted skipping college and called Hamilton at times, living vicariously through Hamilton's experiences at the University of Connecticut, particularly when the Huskies won the 1999 national championship. Hamilton, a junior at the time, declared for the NBA draft shortly after the NCAA title run.
Hamilton's NBA career had an unremarkable start. He had four coaches in three seasons with the Washington Wizards and finished on teams that were a collective 76 games under .500. In what turned into his big career move, he was packaged to the Pistons in September 2002 as part of a six-player trade involving Jerry Stackhouse. Hamilton has led Detroit in scoring since then.
Hamilton, all business as the Pistons try to win their first NBA title since 1990, offered an analytical approach to playing against Bryant.
"I've got to run him," he said. "You've got to run him off screens, keep him moving. Nobody likes to run and chase on both ends of the floor."
Their matchup will mainly exist on one side of the court because Bryant will probably be guarded by lanky 6-foot-9 swingman Tayshaun Prince, who helped hold Bryant to 4-of-14 shooting in the Pistons' regular season victory.
The Lakers, however, will willingly take part in a cross-matchup, putting Bryant defensively on Hamilton.
"Kobe's got a special knack for getting through picks and around picks, and there's going to be a multitude of them because of the dedication that the Pistons have to getting Hamilton free, running him baseline, running him over picks, around picks," Coach Phil Jackson said. "We really have to have someone dedicated to that action."
Because of the cross-matchup, Payton or Devean George will sometimes guard Hamilton if Bryant can't find him in transition.
"It's not going to be just about them," Payton said. "We've got other guys on the team that are going to have to help each other."
But, Payton acknowledged, there is unique entertainment value when Bryant plays Hamilton.
"It's going to be fun," he said. "I've seen them two go at each other. We're going to have fun, and hopefully our team will come out on the winning end."