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LAKERS AT SACRAMENTO Tonight at Arco Arena, 7:30, Ch.

Return of the Kings

Even without Webber, they have NBA's top record, as franchise tries to go to the next level (oh, and beat L.A.)

January 16, 2004|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Everything's up to date in Semi-Civilized Redneck Country, where they now have all the modern inventions such as indoor plumbing, mechanical milkers for their cows and best of all ...

Talk radio!

"I don't care if Kobe [Bryant] is out, I don't care if Shaq [O'Neal] is out, they're weak and we're going to show them how weak they are Friday night," said a caller to the Sacramento Kings' flagship station, preparing for the Lakers' arrival -- three days ahead of time.

Said another caller: "If Shaq's there, we need to slap him around Arco Arena and put 'em in their place. We're the best team in the league and we need to send a little message. It would be good to see the Kings go out and run the Lakers, no matter who's in those sorry-looking yellow jerseys, run them out of the gym."

It's only Tuesday, not that that diminishes the local obsession. As the last seconds ticked away in that night's victory over Miami, fans began chanting, "Beat L.A.!"

It's not only the fans. If the Lakers are fat cats, the Kings are as hungry as junkyard dogs.

"I've been put on Earth for only one real purpose, to be there when we beat the Lakers," said personnel director Jerry Reynolds, who also has been coach and general manager. "Whatever it takes, however long it takes, I'm here for the long haul."

In Southern California, this is only basketball and the regular season, at that. Even if the Lakers have been mailing it in again, their fans aren't too upset, having seen them pull it together at the end often enough.

In this rabid outpost in Northern California, however, they don't take NBA titles for granted, never having won one.

Everything is upside-down here, or right-side up. The Kings have a superstar of their own, Chris Webber, but not enough of them for Laker-style star wars.

Nor do they mail in seasons. Webber, recovering from knee surgery, has yet to play, but the Kings have the league's best record, a remarkable 27-9.

As the Lakers can tell you, even with four future Hall of Famers, nobody loses their best player without noticing it. But that's what the Kings are doing.

"If somebody would have told me we would have the best record in the league right now, I would have said, 'You're crazy,' " Coach Rick Adelman said.

"I did not know what we had. We're in the same boat with some of these other teams. We had five new players. Five of our top 10 last year aren't here."

It turned out that they still had the same old offensive juggernaut, only better.

The Lakers are the glitziest team and, if inspired and getting along, the best. The San Antonio Spurs are the best defenders. The Kings are the highest scoring and most entertaining.

With no better option in crunch time than throwing the ball in to 35-year-old Vlade Divac, the Kings are now No. 1 in the league in scoring, No. 2 in shooting, No. 1 in three-point shooting and No. 1 in assists.

"That's a great offensive team," Miami Coach Stan Van Gundy said after losing to it. "If you didn't have to play against them, they could actually be fun to watch. From where I sit, they're actually miserable to watch."

From where the Lakers sit, the Kings are no day at the beach either.

But then, they've all been to this point before, haven't they?

As Chick Once Said, 'Heartbr-r-r-eak!'

"For months I'd get up and just be depressed, just about the losing. And then once I got over that, I realized how much money it cost me. It's definitely personal."

-- Reynolds, on losing to the Lakers

in the 2002 Western Conference finals

No matter what, the Kings show up and play ... and get their hearts broken.

Two seasons ago, they were about to take a 3-1 lead in the West finals, but Robert Horry's shot shattered that dream in Game 4 and the Lakers escaped in Game 7 here.

Last season, the Kings lost Mike Bibby until Christmas and on the day he returned, lost Bobby Jackson for six weeks. Webber missed 15 games and Peja Stojakovic 10, but they were first in the Pacific Division, nine games ahead of the Lakers.

The Kings then breezed through the first round and turned the home-court advantage around on Dallas in the second, winning Game 1 by 11 points after leading by 28.

In Game 2, Webber blew out his left knee. Five games later, another King season came to a miserable end.

"We had as good a chance as anybody," Adelman said. "I really thought we were going to beat Dallas. They had never been able to guard Chris. Whatever happened with the Lakers and San Antonio [in the other West semifinal], we were right there with those teams.

"We had so many things happen and so many injuries, to win 59 games and then get to the playoffs and suddenly, everybody was healthy. Then to have him go down, that was a little bit difficult.

"But I wasn't as disappointed last year as I was the year before. Last year, there were just things that were totally out of our control, with the injuries we had and Chris going down. Our guys gave it everything they had, we just didn't win.

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