-- It's always a nice story when the junior varsity sneaks up and steals one from the arrogant upperclassmen.

Or when the Eastern Conference team can truly compete in the NBA Finals.

"All year long [we were] called the junior varsity conference," Detroit guard Chauncey Billups scoffed, the disdain evident in his voice. "We played everybody they played -- the Lakers, Minnesota -- and had the same success.

"Maybe the bottom part of the conference isn't as strong as the Western Conference bottom, but I think the top three teams in the Eastern Conference are just as good as the top three teams in the Western Conference."

In the finals, Billups is averaging 22.7 points for the Pistons, who lead the Lakers 2-1 with Game 4 on Sunday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

"People have to wake up," Billups said, "and we're trying to make them do that."

Since the breakup of the Chicago Bulls after the 1998 championship, Eastern Conference teams have gone out in the finals 4-1, 4-2, 4-1, 4-0 and 4-2. No series has been close. There have been calls for a seeding of the playoffs to produce a more competitive finals.

No more.

The Pistons have been dominating the series in a manner that belies the experts' predictions and assumptions. In fact, every Eastern team in the playoffs has played the Pistons tougher than the Lakers, who were supposed to have finished the "real" NBA Finals with their victory over San Antonio.

The Nets took the Pistons to seven games. The Pacers led the series. The Bucks won a game in Detroit. The Lakers have yet to win on the road or lead in the series and have lost twice by double digits.

The Pistons have so dominated every statistical category that a 2-1 lead seems to be an injustice. They've outrebounded the Lakers 133-114. They have more blocks and steals. They have a 91-56 edge in free throw attempts, and that's with two of the three games in Los Angeles.

They're averaging eight more points a game. They're shooting better, notably an edge of 44 percent to 26 percent from three-point range. And they held the Lakers to a franchise playoff-low 68 points in Game 3, third-lowest total in playoff history. Neither of the two other teams that scored fewer won the series, and the Lakers have never won a finals series after falling behind 2-1.

With Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant coming off 14- and 11-point games, respectively, they figure to be better Sunday. O'Neal averages eight more points per game in the playoffs with the extra day's rest he'll have before Game 4.

But it's uncertain whether that is enough anymore.

Karl Malone is expected to play, though knee problems limited him to 18 minutes in Game 3. Coach Phil Jackson said Malone's limited mobility hurt the Lakers' defense.

O'Neal called on Jackson to play veteran Bryon Russell, but Jackson said he'd consider Rick Fox first. No Laker other than O'Neal or Bryant has scored in double figures in the first three games.

"We're a little unhappy as a basketball team," Jackson said. "I talked about the Pistons playing their type of game, and we've allowed this to happen for three games consistently without enforcing our will upon the games. We have to make a stand, and in the process I'm going to have to make a stand with the officials."

It always comes to this. Jackson says the free throw discrepancy has come about because the Lakers have not been allowed to play as aggressively on defense as the Pistons.

The Pistons say they've beaten the Lakers to the ball, off the dribble and to the basket, so the Lakers have had to reach and grab from behind.

"They're not necessarily playing harder than us, but they're playing like they want it more," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "It seems their desire to be in this position to be champions is greater than ours. In the last few years, once we've gotten to the finals, we've been able to force ourselves on a team, our will, our poise and our composure."

They haven't this time, and it's uncertain whether they can.

"Those naysayers who don't believe in Eastern Conference teams . . . " said Detroit's Corliss Williamson, smiling.

"Oh, well."