Kings ready to ascend throne?

- Joaquin M. Henson () - October 23, 2002 - 12:00am
(This is the third of an eight-part series leading to the opening of the National Basketball Association season on Oct. 29. The NBA, through The Star, is giving away exclusive merchandise to five lucky winners who answer the question correctly at the end of each story. Send in your entries–with your name, address and telephone number–to The Star’s NBA Sweepstakes, 14th and Railroad Streets, Port Area, Metro Manila. Mark the number of the question you are answering–today is No. 3–on your entry. Cutoff date is Nov. 5 for all entries. Prizes are 10 replica jerseys–two each of Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson–15 NBA T-shirts and 15 NBA caps. Winners will be announced in The Star’s sports section on Nov. 7.)

In case you’ve forgotten, the Sacramento Kings posted the best record in the National Basketball Association (NBA) last season and as a result, enjoyed the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

Coach Rick Adelman piloted the Kings to a 61-21 mark but something went wrong on the way to the Finals. Sacramento imploded in a classic case of self-destruction as the Kings blew several chances to dispose of the Los

Angeles Lakers in the duel for the Western ticket to the Last Dance.

The Lakers got the jump on the Kings in the series opener but Sacramento stormed back to take Game 2 at home, and Game 3 on the road. The Kings would’ve erected a commanding 3-1 lead, heading back to Sacramento, if not for Robert Horry’s last-second triple and Samaki Walker’s fraudulent trey at the end of the first half in Game 4. Still, the Kings surged back to lead, 3-2, and sat on a twice-to-beat advantage entering Game 6 at L.A.

In Game 7, Sacramento was back on friendly grounds but couldn’t shake off the Laker jinx. The Kings shot a lowly 53.3 percent from the line (16-of-30) and Shaquille O’Neal surprised even himself by converting 11-of-15 foul shots in the clincher. Despite the atrocious showing from the stripe, the Kings led by nine in the third period and sat on a two-point cushion in overtime.

But when the going got tough, the Kings crumbled. Vlade Divac fouled out uselessly. Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie were ice-cold. Chris Webber was tentative, probably recalling his Michigan boo-boo in the dying seconds of the 1993 NCAA title game. With Sacramento on the ropes, the Lakers surged to a 112-106 win in extension. L.A. scored the last eight points to seal it. The Kings folded up like wimps and the Lakers went on to blank New Jersey for the NBA crown.

Losing close calls has been a tradition for the hard-luck Kings. In the first round of the 1999 playoffs, Sacramento went the distance in bowing to Utah. The next year, the Kings dragged the Lakers to the full route and lost in another first round disaster. Add last season’s monumental Game 7 collapse to Sacramento’s tales of woe.

Experts are convinced the Kings are deep enough to swamp the Lakers in a dogfight. Their problem is mental, not lack of talent. It’s a defeatist attitude that Adelman must teach his boys to overcome. Instead of fixing to win, the Kings are turning into the biggest whiners in the West. Street and Smith’s said: "They are obsessed with what they view as a Laker mystique that clouds the vision of game officials and league and network executives who (in their minds) would do anything to keep small-market Sac-town out of the Finals. Their obsession with the officiating might have been an unconscious surrender to a team that, in fact, they were a series of missed free throws away from being in Game 7 on their own homecourt."

Obviously, the Kings’ lack of poise in the stretch run proved to be their undoing. They’re just not used to being winners. They’re just used to being whiners. And Shaq Daddy isn’t pulling any punches in calling the Kings the league’s crybabies.

"They’ve got a lot of talkers," said O’Neal. "They always talk the talk but they never walk the walk. They had us right where they wanted us. But in Game 7, Doug couldn’t make shots, Vlade fouled out on purpose, Chris didn’t want to shoot. Scot Pollard can’t play, anyway. I think the older they get, the wearier they get."

O’Neal can’t wait to stick it to the Kings again and again and again.

Adelman knows if the Kings face the Lakers once more in the playoffs, Divac will need plenty of help, not only from Pollard, to keep the Big Diesel in check. There’s really no way to stop Shaq. Sacramento’s hope is to wear him down in an up-tempo attack where Divac can use his mobility to try to run rings around the 7-1 mastadon. If O’Neal has to work harder on defense, it may take away a bit of his energy for offense.

The Kings’ version of Jason Kidd is Mike Bibby who scaled the heights to assume the leadership role in the Sacramento totem pole last year. Bibby was promptly rewarded for his efforts. Last summer, he inked an $80 million seven-year contract extension.

Bibby, 24, isn’t the quickest point guard but could be the smartest. He’s perfect for the Kings’ motion game which Divac fine-tuned in leading Yugoslavia to the world title in Indianapolis a few months ago. Bibby has a knack for dishing to the open man and isn’t afraid to challenge the big men on dribble-drives. In Sacramento’s 4-1 demolition of highly-touted Dallas in the playoffs last season, Bibby repeatedly shamed the Mavericks’ interior defenders by slashing to the hoop.

Bobby Jackson, a high-energy bunny, usually comes off the bench to relieve Bibby. When Adelman signals to step on the gas, he sometimes plays Jackson and Bibby together in a blur. Kings fans don’t even want to remember how Jason Williams, now in Memphis, used to run the show before the Bibby trade.

Adelman’s key offseason recruit was 6-11 Keon Clark who averaged 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds for Toronto last campaign. He’ll back up Divac, 34, at center or take over the power forward spot in case Webber slides to three. "Adding Keon gives us a lot more versatility," said Adelman. "Having him adds depth up front. He’s athletic. He can block shots off the ball. He runs the floor and has developed into a good offensive player. He gives us that much more versatility on our frontline."

Christie and Turkish delight Hidayet Turkoglu will share minutes at two or three. Then there’s Stojakovic who starred alongside Divac at the recent world championships.

Of course, Adelman is praying Webber and Clark are eventually cleared of their legal problem–the sooner, the better. Webber faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of lying to a grand jury investigating illegal payments from campus boosters during his collegiate career and Clark was recently charged with marijuana possession.

The key to the Kings’ ascendancy is Adelman, known as a players’ coach. He’s got to make his players believe that they can go all the way, that whining won’t lead to winning, and that the true measure of success is playing with heart. Sacramento shot itself in the foot last year and went down in a heap.

Adelman’s goal is redemption. The Kings, after all, belong on the throne.

NBA SWEEPSTAKES QUESTION NO. 3: Who is Sacramento’s Yugoslavian starting center?

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