Sunday , Jun , 06 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Lakers and Pistons set for Game 1

(Sports Network) – The Los Angeles Lakers have a chance to capture their
fourth NBA championship in five years, as they represent the Western
Conference and host the opener of the NBA Finals against the Eastern
Conference’s Detroit Pistons at the Staples Center.

This is the third time that the Lakers and Pistons have met in the NBA Finals.
In 1988, the Lakers defeated the Pistons in seven games to win the title for
the second consecutive season. In 1989, Detroit won the first of its two
championships as it swept the Lakers.

The Lakers, who were the second seed in the West, are appearing in the NBA
Finals for the 22nd time since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in
1961. LA is 9-12 in the championship round and has an overall record of 58-63
in games played in the NBA Finals.

Overall, the Lakers franchise is making their 28th appearance in the NBA
Finals and has won the championship a total of 14 times, as they also won the
title five times in Minneapolis (1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954).

In their last three trip to the finals, the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers in
six games in 2000, defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in 2001 and
swept the New Jersey Nets in 2002. LA was absent from the championship round
in 2003, as it was defeated by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in six
games in the conference semifinals.

LA, which captured the Pacific Division crown during the regular season, comes
into the championship round with a 12-5 record in the postseason. The Lakers,
who are a perfect 9-0 as the host in the playoffs, knocked off the No. 7
Houston Rockets, 4-1, in the opening round, dismissed the defending champion
Spurs, who were the third seed, in six games in the semis and eliminated the
top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, 4-2, in the conference finals.

All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have been carrying a big part of
the load for the Lakers. Bryant has led the team in scoring (25.1 ppg) through
the first three rounds, while O’Neal has posted 20 points per game to go along
with a team-high 13.9 rebounds per contest. Bryant has also averaged 5.3
rebounds and a team-best 5.8 assists.

Future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton are trying to fulfill their
dreams of winning an NBA title. The two players signed with the Lakers as free
agents in the offseason with the hope that they could earn a ring. The 40-
year-old Malone appeared twice in the championship round (1997, 1998) with the
Utah Jazz, while the 35-year-old Payton played in the finals in 1996 as a
member of the Seattle SuperSonics, Both players fell in six games to Michael
Jordan and the Chicago Bulls each time they played for the title.

Malone has averaged 13.1 points and 9.2 boards in almost 40 minutes per game
in the postseason, while Payton has registered 8.8 points and 5.5 helpers in
over 35 minutes of action per contest.

The Lakers have also received timely play from reserves Derek Fisher and
Kareem Rush. Fisher knocked down a game-winning jumper at the buzzer in Game 5
against the Spurs, giving LA a 3-2 lead in the semis. Rush’s shining moment
was in Game 6 against the Timberwolves, as he came off the bench to score a
playoff career-high 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from three-point range in the
series-clinching win against Minnesota.

Detroit, which was seeded third in the East, is making its fourth trip to the
NBA Finals. The Pistons were defeated in the championship round in 1988 and
won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. In 1989, Detroit beat the Lakers and
in 1990 the Pistons defeated the Portland Trail Blazers.

The road to the finals has been a tough one for the Pistons. In the opening
round, Detroit beat the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The semifinals were
more of a challenge, as the Pistons fought back from a 3-2 deficit to
eliminate the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets
in seven contests. In the conference finals, Detroit was able to hold on to
oust the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in six tough games.

Richard Hamilton has shined in the postseason for the Pistons. He has averaged
a team-high 21.5 points per game to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists
per game. The 26-year-old Hamilton has raised his game to level of the elite
shooting guards in the league, as he has knocked down timely shots and has
proven that he can take a team on his back.

Hamilton is not the only reason for Detroit’s success. Defensive standout Ben
Wallace has be dominant on the glass, as the Pistons starting center has
averaged a team-best 14.4 boards to go along with 10.1 points per game in the

Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace have also been prime-
time performers in the playoffs for Detroit. Billups has drained clutch threes
throughout the postseason, while Rasheed and Prince have made great defensive
plays that have turned out to be determining factors in big games.

The Pistons, who are 7-3 as the host and 5-3 on the road in this year’s
playoffs, are 11-5 all-time in games played in the NBA Finals.

During the regular season, the teams split a pair of contests. The Lakers beat
the Pistons, 94-89, at the Staples Center, while Detroit knocked off LA,
106-96, at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

This is a best-of-seven series with Game 2 scheduled for Tuesday at the
Staples Center.