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J.A. Adande

Rivalry May Catch Up to Lakers

June 03, 2002|J.A. Adande

SACRAMENTO — It's tough to decide who needed a worthy adversary more--the NBA or the Lakers.

For the first time in two years, the league had a team that could look the Lakers in the eye without blinking. The Sacramento Kings brought out the best in the Lakers, pushed them to a level we weren't sure they could reach. This seven-game series, which wasn't settled until the Lakers prevailed in overtime Sunday, turned the quest for a third consecutive championship from a bad buddy picture into an epic equivalent of "The Lord of the Rings."

And after three consecutive playoff meetings, Lakers-Kings can now stand next to any current rivalry in sports.

You're going to tell me you wouldn't watch these guys throw on the sneakers and go at it another 10 times?

All they need now is a little staying power. And it might actually be easier for the Kings to hold up their end of the bargain than the Lakers.

"I'm sure they're not going anywhere," Laker forward and King tormentor Rick Fox said. "The Maloofs are going to keep that team together, and rightfully so. We're not getting any younger. You look at any rivalry across the ages, the two teams butt heads for a stretch, one gets the best of the other and it kind of flip-flops sometimes."

Hopefully this won't disappear as quickly as Lakers-Portland.

Since that classic Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals the paths of the Lakers and Trail Blazers have gone in completely different directions, much like the careers of Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari after "Bosom Buddies."

Now Portland is nothing more than first-round sweep material for the Lakers as they make their way to the NBA Finals.

The Kings were feisty upstarts who forced the Lakers to a Game 5 in the first round in 2000, but proved unable to win on the road. Last year they made it to the second round and then couldn't win anywhere, as the Lakers swept them.

This series, the Kings easily could have won all three games played at Staples Center. They dominated Game 3, came within a Robert Horry three-point basket in the last second of winning Game 4 and hung in Game 6 until the last minute despite some seriously home-cooked calls for the Lakers.

"They just showed a quality of poise and their ability to play under duress a lot better than they had in the last two years against us," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. "They had it in a basketball club. It wasn't just individually, it was floating between the players."

The last four games featured three games that came down to the last seconds, then the first overtime game in conference finals history. (And the Lakers' 112-106 victory was the first game in the series in which the officiating crew--Dan Crawford, Bernie Fryer and Eddie F. Rush-- deserved kudos instead of criticism. They let the players play).

If the Lakers didn't just see the team that will knock them off their throne, they at least got a look at the blueprint. The Kings blended a little bit of the old with the new. Take the pick-and-roll game that Utah used to perfection to win eight of nine playoff games against the Lakers a few years ago. Add in a center who ranks among the best of the non-Shaq crowd. Mix in scoring threats at every spot on the floor and high-energy players off the bench.

Is the rivalry on?

"Most definitely," said King guard Bobby Jackson, who was a spark off the bench throughout the series. "You keep this nucleus together

The Kings just haven't broken through.

"I guess our time's got to come some other year," King Coach Rick Adelman said.

Rivalries bring out the best in the two teams. The more teams play each other they become more alike, assimilating whatever characteristics will enable them to win.

"The Kings, they were playing excellent basketball," Kobe Bryant said. "They were playing better basketball than we were. And yet we managed to hang in there and keep on fighting and somehow win the series. I think that shows a lot about our character.

"It was a gut-check. To be tested like this, and to respond the way we have, it gives us a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence."

Rivals are like mirrors, which means they also show the flaws. This series demonstrated the danger of the Lakers' reliance on Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. One reason the Lakers were so fearful of foul trouble on either of those two was that they had no one on the bench who could serve as a serviceable replacement.

"You see how many minutes we logged as starters," said Fox, one of four Laker starters to play 48 minutes or more in Game 7. "That's a credit to their team, it's not a discredit to our guys. We have a great bench, but Phil is obviously going to go with the guys that have been here. And it paid off."

There were times throughout the series when even the other starters couldn't provide scoring threats to bolster O'Neal and Bryant. Fox, Horry and Derek Fisher went long stretches without creating their own offense, before they all made solid contributions in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Laker owner Jerry Buss is going to have to pay extra, probably even going into luxury tax territory, to get his team the additional punch it will need to hold the Kings back.

Sunday, he at least was in the mood to pay the Kings compliments.

"I feel they're the next best team in the West," Buss said. "And obviously it's very close between the two teams. I think that has to create rivalry. They haven't beaten us in any serious playoff situation, but on the other hand they gave us everything we could possibly want this time."

A real rivalry?

"They gotta beat us first," Bryant said. "You know the rules, baby."

More reason for the Kings to anticipate their next shot at the Lakers.

Can't wait till it gets here.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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