LOS ANGELES -- The NBA Finals are a best-of-seven series, which means the Pistons, theoretically, could lose three times and still knock off the heavily favored Lakers.
Realistically, the margin is a little narrower. The Pistons could lose three of the last six games and still knock off the heavily favored Lakers. But, lose Game 1 and that mountain is simply going to be too steep for the Pistons to climb.
(This column, by the way, should come with a warning label: Heavy with Unadulterated Opinion. That means I'm going to get into the nebulous area of the two teams' mindset and psyche and, no, I don't have a license for that other than a literary one. Analysis of this series, for me, can't begin until I've seen these two teams square off at least once because there are so many matchups that either didn't exist the two times they met during the regular season or no longer apply because these teams have gone through such dramatic emotional metamorphoses.)
I picked Detroit to win this year's championship before the playoffs started, but if the boys in Motor City are going to make me look good, they can't afford to approach this as anything but a one-game, all-or-nothing contest. And not simply because Phil Jackson never has lost a playoff series in which his team has led at some point, going 44-0, a record so preposterously amazing I can't believe it's true.
The Pistons need to win Game 1 because it's about the only way they're going to rattle the Lakers, who are as confident as they've been all season. It's OK for the purple-and-gold to think they have the formula to finish their mission. But let them prove it the first time out and they're not going to stop believing it, no matter what adjustments coach Larry Brown makes.
Sure, the Pistons lost their first regular-season meeting in L.A. and then won four days later, in Detroit, at a time the Lakers were rolling to an 18-3 record. This is not that Lakers' team. This is an infinitely better one.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were still at odds with each other then and letting it spill onto the court. Kobe and Phil Jackson had yet to find their current elevated plane of communication. Karl Malone had yet to go through the turmoil that made him into the team's emotional leader. Derek Fisher had yet to hit the miracle shot against the Spurs that now has him thinking (and shooting) as if every shot is divinely guided. Devean George had yet to fully grasp his role and Gary Payton was still of the mind that Jackson would turn the triangle on its head for him.
The Pistons are dramatically different, too. I just wish they'd showed it in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers. That was the worst case of first-half nerves for a team that had done the heavy lifting by winning Game 5 on the other team's floor that I've seen since the Kings were a factor. (Which has been only a year but seems so much longer now.) If the Pistons were that tight in a close-out game at The Palace of Auburn Hills in the conference finals, what are they going to be like in Game 1 of the Finals against the mighty Lakers at the Staples Center? I'll say this: If they're anything close, my prediction is doomed.
But should Detroit disrupt the Lakers' offense and force the multiple turnovers San Antonio did early in their series, and if Chauncey Billups is pushing the break and the Wallaces are making Shaq and Karl haul those age and injury-weighted bodies up and down at warp speed and Tayshaun Prince is making Kobe strictly a turnaround jump shooter and Rip Hamilton is dragging him through myriad screens at the other end and Corliss Williamson is forcing Phil to use Rick Fox instead of George, the Pistons have a chance. Because those are a lot of questions for the Lakers to sort out and I'm not sure with their thin bench that they have the flexibility to answer them.
Detroit just has to pose them, convincingly and successfully, in Game 1.