SACRAMENTO — With a hop off the bench during the pregame introductions and a quick glance toward the heavens, Chris Webber returned to the Sacramento King lineup Tuesday night, carrying playoff implications on his back.
Playing for the first time in nearly 10 months, the All-Star forward scored 26 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He took 12 rebounds. And, having reached his allotted limit of 30 minutes, he watched anxiously from the bench over the last 4:20 as the Kings survived a late scare to defeat the Clippers, 113-106, in Arco Arena.
And so, the rich get richer.
Already owners of the NBA's best record, winners of six of their last seven games overall and 12 in a row at home over the Clippers since Nov. 7, 1997, the Kings increased their Pacific Division lead over the Lakers to six games.
And now their best player is back.
"He looked great," Vlade Divac said. "I saw him the last couple weeks in practice; he was doing well. But today he almost looked like the old Chris."
Webber was delighted.
"I really feel blessed," he said. "It's great to be back on the court, great to hear the fans out there. I was so pumped I was about to kiss the floor.... It really felt good. I didn't expect it to go that good."
A more lopsided victory would have more seamlessly fit the occasion, but the Clippers didn't make the trip north to play the patsy.
Led by Corey Maggette, who scored 32 points, they got a combined 74 points from Maggette, Elton Brand and Quentin Richardson.
And they twice took the lead inside of 2 1/2 minutes remaining, the last at 104-103 with 1:22 to play, before the more poised Kings closed the game with a 10-2 run, sending the sellout crowd of 17,317 happily into the night.
King fans had been waiting for this day all season.
Webber, who celebrated his 31st birthday Monday, hadn't played since May, when he was injured in the second round of the playoffs. Or, as the Sacramento Bee noted Tuesday, "It has been 299 days since Chris Webber crumbled to the court at American Airlines Center in Dallas with a severe knee injury."
He sat out the Kings' first 58 games while rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee and, after being taken off the injured list Feb. 16, serving an eight-game suspension: five for violating the NBA's drug policy and three for lying to a grand jury about his dealings with a Michigan booster.
The Kings were 43-15 in his absence, 3-0 against the Clippers.
"My main focus has to be trying to keep us going in the same direction," he said on the eve of his return. "It's not to try to prove my worth to the team. No matter what people say, 'We're better with or without me,' I don't care....
"My thing is I see how scary good we can be, and that's going to be up to me to make sure we keep on the same pace -- not make the team go in another direction because we don't have a feel for each other or I'm trying to do too much. But it's definitely good to see how far we've come."
Coach Rich Adelman planned to bring him along slowly.
"There is no doubt this is his training camp," he told reporters Monday. "He's been out a long time, and I know he's raring to go, but he's also got to understand that March is the month he's going to get himself ready for April."
His debut couldn't have gone better.
To a standing ovation, the Kings took the court to Eminem's "Without Me," with its opening line: Guess who's back?
Webber scored the Kings' first points on a jump hook. He took his first rebound within the first 90 seconds, threw down his first dunk a short time later.
Before halftime, he had 11 points and eight rebounds.
"I was so numb," he said. "I had so much energy that it almost paralyzed my feelings.... I was so emotional that I didn't really feel I was playing until I missed a free throw and guys were like, 'Your lungs are burning, ain't they?' "
They were, of course.
And he never felt better.