Down two games to none against the defending NBA champions in the second round, with all of their flaws exposed, the LA Lakers could have fallen apart. Instead they've become a team, a process that was not entirely accomplished until game 6 of the western conference finals. First the stars had to (as they say) elevate their game, and while doing the difficult and improbable things that stars do---in terms of skill, smarts, heart and stamina---they kept teammates involved and played the coach's game. Improbably they won four games in a row against the defending champion Spurs. It took a very improbable shot by a non-star (Derek Fisher) to do it, but most of the time it was Shaq or Kobe or notably both, who sealed the deal.
As predicted here, Minnesota gave them a battle, and also as predicted, there was a most improbable hero, Kareem Rush, whose 6 three pointers won a mostly ugly game 6 (made uglier by needlessly interfering officiating) and the series for the Lakers. And it was Kobe's passes to Rush, and Malone's passes to Mevedenko (and pats on the head when he saw how nervous this reserve player was) that made this a team at last.
So this is what the Detroit Pistons have to face. The Lakers still have a tendency to get lazy (though I thought their much advertised "giddiness" in the locker room before their tepid performance in the fifth game was a good sign---a collective tension release that was another team bonding moment) and Detroit will compete hard, especially on defense. But just as the western conference series was essentially over when the Lakers won the first game, if they win the first game of this series, it will be just a matter of how many games it will take---4, 5 or 6---before they claim the championship. It's not just a matter of numbers, but of the fact that the Lakers have successfully adjusted to their opponents better as the series goes on.
They could get lazy and blow the first game, since it is at home, but that's unlikely. I expect Karl Malone to have a great series and keep the Lakers honest. It will be his first championship, and he may retire afterwards. (Although my decidedly minority view is that he will be back next year, along with Shaq and Kobe. Gary Payton is less likely, and coach Phil Jackson is somewhat of a mystery, but if the two stars and Malone stay, it will probably be as much up to them to ask him to stay as it will be for management to renegotiate his contract.)
I can't say I cared for Malone much before this season. I thought he was mostly a redneck bully; I was slower to forgive him for his comments that caused Magic Johnson to retire (Malone said players wouldn't guard Magic as hard because they'd be afraid to get some of his HIV-infected blood) than Magic was. But he's shown me something this year. Even though he was hurt for a good part of the season, he was the guy who held this team together and insisted on its character, with an openness and honesty, emotion and calm that belies his muscular play. At 40 he may not have the ability to have an MVP series but he's going to be a crucial element. The guy who will be playing at an MVP level will be Kobe, and it's not irrelevant to mention that Malone and Kobe have bonded off and especially on the court this year; at crucial times, before Shaq elevated his game and the team knew what to expect of him, the Malone-Kobe combination was what kept the Lakers going.
Who else is going to step up? Rick Fox has had a dismal playoffs, still hampered by his injury. His defense and passing have been crucial in the past---perhaps they will be again. Gary Payton will earn his championship on defense in this series, but he's capable of scoring in heaps. That's what this Laker team learned-that when the defense gives somebody an opportunity (and they must, faced with the decision to double team and swarm Shaq or Kobe), every one of the "role" players is capable of making big shots, and lots of them. Detroit is perhaps more banged up than the Lakers, though Derek Fisher was playing hurt and not terribly well in game 6. But at this point, every team and every player is hurting. Still, the finals are the finals, and the adrenalin should raise the level of play. Game one is Sunday.