SALT LAKE CITY — Happily for the Sacramento Kings, learning to be a top-seeded team the hard way, that which doesn't kill you is supposed to make you stronger, even if it comes really close.
For one brief, shining and loud moment, Utah Jazz Nation arose from the mists Saturday as the fans, who have been melting away for years, returned to call down the old thunder, only to see the Kings gut it out down the stretch, coming from three points behind in the last 1:19 to win this pivotal Game 3, 90-87.
Struggling as mightily as the Kings have against the eighth-seeded Jazz, they now lead the series, 2-1, knowing they can go home again.
"Getting beat at home [in Game 2], the way we got beat [trailing by 18 points in Arco Arena, where they were 36-5 this season], we knew Utah was gonna give us a real battle," said King Coach Rick Adelman. "We have a lot of young guys and they've never been in the position where they're favored....
"Even though [the Jazz] went ahead and even though it seemed things weren't going our way, we were able to get through it and get a very tough win. So I think it's got to do a lot for our guys' psyches at this point."
If their psyches are resting more comfortably today, it's because, in a role reversal, John Stockton, wisest of the wise, assumed the Kings' old knucklehead role, getting in early foul trouble, then tacking on No. 3 in the second quarter trying to block a Mike Bibby 15-footer from behind ... and No. 4 in the third quarter, fouling Bibby on a 20-footer, an even worse mistake.
Then at the end, with the Kings leading, 86-85, and :32 left, Stockton went for a steal at half-court and was called for his sixth foul.
While he was taking his seat on the bench, Peja Stojakovic made two free throws, putting the Kings up, 88-85.
"Well, we had to try get the ball back," said Stockton, looking even bleaker than he usually does after losses. "If you need to foul, you need to foul because they had the lead and the ball and time was running down so that's the way it goes."
Well, the Kings would have had to shoot with at least :08 left, giving the Jazz a chance at a last shot, so maybe fouling wasn't the right play?
"Maybe not," conceded Stockton.
It was your basic big game in the Delta Center, which is even louder than Arco. The Jazz players, who are not only physical but adept at getting calls, turned it into the usual slow-paced scrum for the opponents and theater for the referees.
"A lot of veterans I've been talking to in the NBA told me to expect to have the series not really be for us, that you're going to have to fight through it and they were right," said the Kings' Chris Webber. "It is a test, especially for a lot of us....
"Especially for me, 'cause I want to play in a playoff game. I want to have fun [and] do some great things and it's hard to do that, sitting on the bench every game with foul trouble. I don't foul out that much during the season."
Webber is guarding Karl Malone--a sumo wrestler also adept at anticipating contact ... or flopping--and isn't the first opposing power forward to get in foul trouble here.
Unfortunately for the Jazz, which seemed to be pursuing, earning and getting its customary calls, it turned around at the end.
With 1:19 left and Utah up, 85-82, Andrei Kirilenko was called for bumping Stojakovic on the dribble, 20 feet from the basket. Stojakovic made two free throws, cutting it to 85-84.
On the Kings' next possession, Stockton, anticipating Bibby's move, stepped in front, took the contact, fell backward ... or flopped ... only to see the call go against him.
With :49 left, Bibby made two free throws, putting the Kings up, 86-85.
With :25 left, Stockton committed his badly timed foul on Stojakovic. The Kings, who made one shot from the field in the last 8:23, while missing six and turning the ball over four times, were on their way to winning their biggest game of the season.
"Obviously, it's an opportunity lost," said the disconsolate Stockton. "You can say we've had two of those and nothing you can do about it."
Try not fouling jump shooters next time, but on behalf of the young, no-longer-as-endangered top-seeded Kings, thanks, they needed that.