Once again, we come to the NBA Finals searching for any reason to believe the team from the East has any reasonable chance to beat the team from the West. It's been that way for five years now, and counting; somebody from east of the Mississippi comes out here armed with hopes and game plans, only to hear the words, "Told you so," after six games or fewer.
Once again, we come looking for competition instead of a coronation. And now, it's Detroit's turn to face the Los Angeles Lakers and some pretty long odds in a championship series that begins in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
The initial story line is pretty simple. The Pistons are here because they played the most stifling defense in the Eastern Conference, maybe in all of basketball. But the larger question is whether they can manufacture enough scoring to seriously threaten the Lakers, who are the most complete team in the league, one with more stars, more deep-in-the-playoffs experience and more championship hardware.
"I'm worried," the Lakers' Rick Fox said on the eve of Sunday's Game 1, "that we're not giving them enough respect, in regard to the defense they play. Defense wins championships. We'd better respect them like [NFL teams] had to respect the Baltimore Ravens when they won the championship.
"We're the team with the stacked roster that is supposed to walk right through this thing to get the ring. Well, Indiana has a lot of good offensive players, too, and they struggled to get 70 to 75 points. . . . We can play defense just as well as they do, but if we don't and they steal a game, then what? It's 1-1 with them having the next three games at home."
Asked if being such an overwhelming favorite can be a problem for the Lakers in this series, Fox said, "Yeah, it can be, especially if we're overconfident. That's been a character flaw of ours, being overconfident. That and boredom."
The Pistons won't have those two issues. Joe Dumars, the man who rebuilt the Pistons from nothing after helping them win back-to-back championships, said he has a team full of players, "with chips on their shoulders. Chauncey Billips has one because he's been on five different teams and feels he has something to prove to each one that let him go. Rip [Hamilton] has one because he was traded by Washington just as he was coming into his own. Rasheed [Wallace] because he feels he's the villain of the world. I don't have a team full of pampered stars who were given everything at an early age, guys who had flowers thrown at their feet. We have guys who are very confident, who will not back down, who bring an edge. I like the personality of my guys."
After spending some time just listening to Dumars on Saturday, I've changed my mind to some degree about this series. Most predictions you'll read have the Lakers winning the Finals in four or five games, figuring there's no way they'll be bored or overconfident with the championship on the line, and as a result the Lakers will be all they can be each game. A few people expect the Finals to come back here for Game 6. I'm not changing my mind entirely; I'll still pick the Lakers to win. But in seven confrontational and tense games, with home-court advantage winning out.
It's just difficult, as tough and as deep as the Pistons are, to see them beating Shaq, Kobe and Phil Jackson four times in a series. But it's going to be contentious, and the Lakers are not going to pull away from a Pistons team that plays with so much purpose. Larry Brown will find a way to get somebody besides Hamilton (averaging 21.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting in the playoffs) to score; even the Lakers are betting on that. "We'll have to react to Larry Brown's adjustments real quickly," Horace Grant said.
Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle, whose team the Pistons eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals, said, "I think [the Pistons] have a great chance. This is a team that's built the right way to play the Lakers. They've got big guys that can shoot the ball deep. They've got rebounders. They've got perimeter guys who can dribble, pass and shoot."
But the Pistons know that first and foremost they have to be as committed to smothering the Lakers are they were to smothering the Pacers. "If you're looking for a beauty pageant," Dumars said, "then go to one. We're trying to win a championship here. And trying to win in an artistic way is completely unimportant to us."
It's common to draw an analogy between the Bad Boy Pistons of 15 years ago and these Pistons because both played great defense. But as Grant, who was with the Bulls for Chicago's great rivalry with Detroit, said Saturday, "Back in the day, they'd let you get away with almost murder. [Bill] Laimbeer, [Rick] Mahorn, [Dennis] Rodman, [John] Salley, even Joe and Vinnie Johnson. They were very, very physical. You just wanted to get out of a series with the old Pistons with your entire body intact." Phil Jackson called these Pistons "pretty lightweight," compared to the Bad Boys who pillaged his Bulls, while noting the rules don't allow for that kind of mayhem anymore.
Even so, with Karl Malone having had his knee drained recently, with Derek Fisher trying to rehabilitate a sprained knee, with Fox in pain from a sore neck, the Lakers would just like to get out of Los Angeles with their bodies and their home-court advantage intact, though the Pistons plan to make it tough for the Lakers to do either.