The culmination of an NBA season highlighted by a trio of dazzling rookies, the pending rape trial of Kobe Bryant and an unthinkable number of coach firings begins tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers -- the league's star-studded drama kings -- open the best-of-seven NBA Finals against the blue-collar Detroit Pistons.
These finals are a rematch of the 1989 championship series, and you can excuse the Pistons if they're hoping for a little deja vu: Detroit's Bad Boys swept that first meeting, 4-0.
Those Lakers had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, three Hall of Famers. These Lakers are stacked with four likely destined for the Hall in center Shaquille O'Neal, guards Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton and forward Karl Malone. These Lakers aren't the same freewheeling type of team, but they can deliver backbreaking plays at key moments just like the previous version.
"We have tremendous respect for the Lakers," Pistons Coach Larry Brown said. "They came out of the West, and everyone knows how strong that conference is. I think they are playing at the highest level right now, so it's going to be an unbelievable challenge."
The one non-Bad Boy on Detroit's 1989 and 1990 championship teams, Joe Dumars, now the franchise's general manager, has pieced together a rough-and-humble crew that can't match L.A.'s talent but could surpass it with heart and defense -- just as it did in the prime of the Bad Boys.
The Pistons struggle to score at times, but their defense can be vise-like. Detroit is averaging 86 points per game in these playoffs and yielding only 80 points per game. The Lakers, by contrast, are scoring an average of 90 per game, giving up 86.
Detroit hasn't had to deal with a center like O'Neal in its trip to the finals, but the Lakers haven't had to contend with a team loaded with such depth, size and hardcore competitors.
"It's a challenge for us to go up against them, because we've heard so much about their defense," Bryant said. "It's fun for us from a matchup standpoint to go up against them. Also, it's going to be a challenge for our defense to see if we can stand up to that level."
Said Lakers Coach Phil Jackson: "Both teams are keyed and ready."
The Lakers, who dispatched defending champion San Antonio and top-seeded Minnesota in their last two playoff series, are favored to win their fourth championship in five years. They have, in the words of guard Derek Fisher, "survived" a season of infighting between players and coaches and dealt with Bryant's legal proceedings.
Getting to this point has been a trial, but Los Angeles is rolling. It has a tendency to suffer attention lapses, which have led to the majority of its five postseason losses. However, when it re-focuses, L.A. has been a freshly sharpened buzz saw.
The Lakers adjusted defensively to make Spurs forward Tim Duncan the team's only offensive option in the final four games of the conference semifinals, all won by Los Angeles. Then they applied the right amount of pressure at crucial junctures to choke off short-handed Minnesota's bid to reach the finals. Role players Fisher, Kareem Rush and Slava Medvedenko have made key contributions when O'Neal, Bryant and Malone were either in foul trouble or out of sync, giving the Lakers an added edge.
The Pistons, at least for now, aren't fazed.
"We love that," Detroit guard Chauncey Billups said. "A lot of people didn't think we could beat Indiana. This is on a different level. It definitely fuels our fire."
Like the old Bad Boys, these Pistons play with a chip on their shoulders. They feel under-appreciated, in part because all achievements accomplished in the Eastern Conference are discredited because the West is widely considered tougher from top to bottom.
Detroit's top scorer, Richard Hamilton, didn't make any of the NBA's all-star teams. Its top rebounder, Ben Wallace, had his reign as the league's top defensive player end this year, and its coach has yet to win a league championship, unlike Jackson, who is seeking his record 10th.
The Pistons feel they hold an ace, though, an ace they acquired from the Western Conference: forward Rasheed Wallace. Though the Pistons made it to the East finals last season with Hamilton, Billups and Ben Wallace leading the way, getting Rasheed Wallace, who spent most of his career in Portland before being dealt to Atlanta then moved to Detroit in February, provides the size, inside-out game and a touch of psychological imbalance the Pistons feel they need.
Wallace has gone against Malone, O'Neal and the Lakers more than any player on the Pistons' roster, and that experience could give Detroit a little more help, every bit of which it will need.
"Rasheed has gotten us over the hump," Brown said.