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MISSION BEGINS FINAL COUNTDOWN.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO - The locker room was nearly empty late Monday evening when Derek Fisher pulled Karl Malone close, two Southerners of humble stock sharing a moment and a feeling, standing together on the brink of greatness, humming with anticipation.

The Lakers had just closed out the Western Conference finals, pushing them ever closer to the championship, and Fisher wanted Malone to get a glimpse of what awaited them, with two more weeks of good fortune and hard work.

Resting snugly on his pinkie was the 2001 championship ring. Fisher has three, spanning the 2000-2002 seasons. Malone, the 19-year veteran, has none, so he indulged the opportunity.

``He took it off and just kind of took a look at it and just cracked a smile, that genuine Karl Malone smile that you see when you know he's up to something,'' Fisher said.

Malone tried to slide the ring on his own pinkie. Naturally, it didn't fit. But he held it for maybe 30 or 40 seconds.

``Not too long,'' Fisher said, ``just enough to know that this is what he wants. And hopefully, we can get it done for him.''

That mission, conceived last summer in Mitch Kupchak's office, embarked upon last fall in Honolulu, briefly threatened last month in San Antonio, now enters its final stage.

With four more victories, Malone and Gary Payton will have their first championship, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal each will claim their fourth and Phil Jackson will get his 10th. Then the Lakers will end it all by perhaps scrapping the entire roster and starting over.

The Lakers and Detroit Pistons open the 2004 Finals tonight at Staples Center, where Malone's lifelong quest will collide with Ben Wallace's passion, and a dynasty in its twilight will confront a team of young ambition and no regard for anyone's idea of destiny.

``We know that we have a good opportunity too,'' said Pistons guard Mike James, ``and have the chance to make history.''

History seems to be the common thread in this series.

The Pistons, heavy underdogs, could make it by winning the series. The Lakers could be it, no matter what happens.

Jackson's contract expires this summer. Bryant, Malone, Payton and Derek Fisher can become free agents, and all have reasons to leave. Even O'Neal, under contract for two more seasons, is an unknown. O'Neal himself believes he could be traded.

Under similar circumstances six years ago, Jackson embraced the finality of it all and called his Chicago Bulls' 1997-98 season the ``Last Dance.'' He has taken no such poetic turns this time, but on the eve of the Finals opener, Jackson veered close.

``We've talked about it as our last chance, so to speak, to perform as a group,'' he said, ``and for a lot of these players there isn't a whole lot of security beyond this year.''

That was the battle cry Jackson sounded a few weeks ago, when the Lakers trailed the San Antonio Spurs 2-0. Since then he has avoided using it as ``an emotional appeal,'' but concedes, ``I think it's present with us all the time.''

So, Last Chance it is.

For their part, the Pistons will play the unenviable part of underdog, a role previously occupied by the New Jersey Nets in 2002 and the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001. The Lakers rolled them both.

As did their predecessors, the Pistons arrive at the final round having conquered a weak Eastern Conference, and with a similar identity: blue- collar grit, teamwork, lots of hustle, lots of defense, but not skilled in the art of scoring and not particularly deep in talent.

Their most well-known star is the snarly Rasheed Wallace, acquired in a midseason trade with Portland. He doesn't get as many technical fouls as he used to, or as many points. The other Wallace is Ben, the muscular two-time Defensive Player of the Year, who rebounds and blocks shots better than anyone, but doesn't score much and plays center, which means his hands will be full.

Richard Hamilton, a smooth-shooting guard who averages 20 points a game, is the closest thing Detroit has to a bona fide offensive star, but he is not Reggie Miller yet.

What the Pistons do have is tenacious defense. They held opponents to 84.3 points per game this season, tied with San Antonio for lowest in the league. Teams converted just 41.3 percent of their field goals against Detroit.

The Lakers are dutiful in praising the Pistons' defense - ``It won't be easy,'' Fisher said - but they are not exactly awestruck, having already fought past the Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves to get here.

``I can't anticipate they're going to be any better than San Antonio,'' Jackson said of the Pistons. ``San Antonio gave up the same amount of points exactly per game. So it's going to be a good defensive team, but we don't think it has a better shot blocker, better rebounders or anything else better than San Antonio had. And (Minnesota's) Kevin Garnett was perhaps as good a rebounder as we've seen, so we anticipate that our challenges up until this point will benefit us and carry us through some of the series until we start adjusting to exactly the idiosyncrasies of this team.''

The Lakers have not lost at home yet in the playoffs and have lost consecutive games only once, to San Antonio. They have won with scores in the 70s, 80s and 90s, with winning margins as high as 24 and as low as one.

They opened the playoffs with one of the uglier games in Lakers history, a 72-71 victory over Houston. That's practically a routine game for the Pistons, who beat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals by an average score of 75.2 to 72.7.

``They have a really good defensive team,'' Malone said, ``but we feel like we have one, too.''

In recent days, Malone has received phone calls from old teammates and former rivals, wishing him well as he marches toward what might be his last shot at a championship. The 40-year-old has been savoring every step, but is emotionally restrained.

``I've been in this position before,'' Malone said. ``As a matter of fact, I've been two games away (with the Utah Jazz). So it's nothing to be excited about.''

Nor will the Lakers dwell for too long on the possibility that this is their last time on this stage together. If this is the end of the line for the Shaq-Kobe-Phil partnership, and the end of an era, they will let it play out before letting sentimentality seep in.

``We don't talk about it much,'' Bryant said. ``There is the possibility that this team could break up, won't have the same nucleus for next season, yeah, so it's important for us to go out and capitalize as much as we can.''

Those discussions will come soon enough. Kupchak, the general manager, and owner Jerry Buss will make their decisions, and Bryant - who might want to break free of Jackson and O'Neal - will make his.

``All I know is that if we win, then everything else will be forgotten,'' O'Neal said. ``But if you look at the history of sports, it happens. If we were the first team in history that they were going to break up, then that would be very sad. But it happens, man.''

But O'Neal isn't ready to let go just yet.

``If you put it in my hands, then there wouldn't be no discussion,'' he said.

Meaning, everybody would be back.

``Everybody.''

Howard Beck, (818) 713-3607

howard.beck(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 6, 2004
Words:1271
Previous Article:SEASON TURNS INTO TURBULENT TRIAL FOR KOBE.
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