The Orlando Magic surpassed all expectations by overpowering the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
|Magic's Dwight Howard will be one to watch in the NBA Finals [GALLO/GETTY]
On Thursday, the Magic will start the quest for their first NBA title in Game One of the best-of-seven series at the Staple Centre in Los Angeles.
Yet again, the Magic will face an opponent more fancied, more glamorous and built around an unstoppable superstar Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers, cheered on by Hollywood actors and propelled by voracious guard Bryant, are seeking their 15th NBA title and have become accustomed to the giddy heights of stardom.
The last and only other time Orlando made the Finals, they were trounced 4-0 by the Houston Rockets in 1995, when a young Shaquille O'Neal was on the team.
Adding weight to their task is the Lakers' Phil Jackson, determined to restore Los Angeles' hegemony after their loss to the Boston Celtics in the Finals last year, and clinch a record 10th NBA title as coach.
"There is kind of a death march to come into the Finals, to watch other teams disappear," said Jackson, who shares nine titles with Red Auerbach.
"We're still standing here with only one other team left, a good team, and we're anticipating a really good final."
A title may also mean a measure of redemption for 30-year-old Bryant, stung by comments from former Lakers general manager Jerry West that LeBron James had surpassed him as the league's best player.
"A lot of players have been in this situation (NBA Finals) just once in their career," said Bryant, in search of his fourth championship ring.
"I've been fortunate to be here for a sixth time so I've been very, very lucky."
Los Angeles will host the first two games before the series shifts to Orlando for the next three, if needed.
|Legendary coach Phil Jackson will have a a few tactics up his sleeve [GALLO/GETTY]
While cloaked in an aura of destiny, the Lakers' path to the Finals has been anything but awe inspiring.
Los Angeles needed seven games to oust injury-ravaged Houston, and six to beat Denver in a patchy campaign for the Western championship.
Last year's MVP Bryant said that their scratchy win over the Nuggets had nonetheless provided a blue-print to beat the Magic.
"The similarities that they share with the Denver Nuggets is that they are both extremely explosive," he said.
"You can relax for one minute and all of a sudden they go on these 12-0 runs. It's pretty remarkable."
For Orlando, who stunned MVP LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games, much of their hopes lie on the shoulders of All-Star centre Dwight Howard who scored a playoff career-best 40 points on Saturday in Game Six of the Eastern.
Jackson has hinted that the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Howard can expect close attention from his seven-foot tall centres, Andrew Bynum, Spaniard Pau Gasol and DJ Mbenga.
With Howard targeted, Orlando may yet spring a surprise by naming point guard Jameer Nelson, who suffered a shoulder injury in February against the Dallas Mavericks and has not been heard from since.
Nelson scored a humble 16.7 points with 5.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 42 games this season, but averaged a damaging 27.5 points in the Magic's two victories from two starts against the Lakers.
"He pushes the pace, he runs," Howard said.
"That's what we need him to do. We're not asking him to come back and be a saviour."
"We understand that every series since the first series against Philadelphia, we were considered the underdogs," Howard said.
"The only way that you gain respect is by winning and that's our plan."