Kings appear primed for upset of Lakers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2002

Jim English

Sports Columnist

There’s no question the Los Angeles Lakers are the team by which all others in the NBA are measured. They finished out last season as world champions, proving themselves every bit the dominant juggernaut they were hyped to be. Having returned with all their key components still in place, they remain the champs until someone comes along to knock them off their throne.

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But no one ever said it would be a breeze.

The San Antonio Spurs gave them all they could handle before the Lakers finally prevailed to advance to their current shootout with the Sacramento Kings. Many assumed the Spurs would be the biggest obstacle the Lakers would have to overcome on their way to another championship. But talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire

When the Kings took a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series with Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, it looked as though someone had finally found the weak spot in the defending champs’ armor, although it was hard to pinpoint exactly what that weakness was. It wasn’t putting Shaquille O’Neal on the free throw line, as had become the accepted game plan against L.A. Although no Rick Barry, Shaq has managed to hold his own at the line in the playoffs.

Maybe the strategy would be to keep Shaq in foul trouble. Sacramento tried this plan early and often, as center Vlade Divac assumed the title of "flop king" of the NBA (left vacant since the retirement of Dennis Rodman). The problem with Vlade is that frequently he is halfway to the floor before contact is even made, only clearing the way for Shaq to dunk on top of him. And his flops have become so frequent and annoying now, that the referees have stopped calling them.

Should the strategy be to let Shaq and Kobe Bryant get their points (which is probably going to happen whether you "let" them or not) and shut down everyone else? Often this can be a legitimate ploy when going up against a star player but when the team you’re playing has possibly the two best players in the league, as the Lakers do, you may very well find yourself "letting" those two drop 90 points on you.

Kobe Bryant came down with a case of food poisoning from a room-service cheeseburger that noticeably hindered his performance in an earlier game. This prompted some to speculate whether or not that may have been the Kings’ new strategy.

Whatever the new plan, it seems to be working more often than not, as the Kings have hung tough with the Lakers every game so far. In fact, they were on the brink of taking a nearly insurmountable 3-1 lead in Game Four.

With only a few seconds remaining in regulation, Sacramento had held off the Lakers late to cling to a two-point advantage. It was L.A.’s ball and everybody knew that they wanted to get the ball in the hands of either Kobe or Shaq. As it turned out, both superstars would have their opportunities to win the game.

As time ticked down, Kobe dribbled past a defender and headed for the front of the rim, going airborne in the lane to put up the shot and hopefully draw a foul in the process. His shot rolled off the rim, but into the giant hands of O’Neal. Shaq then put up a short bank that also rolled harmlessly off the rim. As it rolled off, Divac swatted the ball toward the top of the key to keep it away from the big guys down low. Normally a smart play, but this time it wound up in the waiting arms of Robert Horry, who calmly pulled up and quickly nailed a three-pointer to seal the victory.

As Game Five rolled along Tuesday night, the Lakers got back to business as usual. A steady diet of Shaq inside and Kobe outside brought the world champs a two-point lead with seconds remaining. It seemed that they were poised to cruise past the Kings and take their rightful place in the Championship game. But Kings’ point guard Mike Bibby would have none of that. He finished off one of his best shooting performances of the season by coming off a pick (albeit a moving one) by Chris Webber and hitting a three of his own to give Sacramento the win and a three games to two advantage.

Although I still expect the Lakers to pull it out in the end, the Kings deserve all the credit for not fading down the stretch as most expected. Maybe the secret formula to beating the Lakers doesn’t come from a scouting report or a chalkboard. Maybe it’s simply a matter of not being intimidated, but believing you have what it takes to beat them. If the Kings will continue with things they have done up to this point, and stop complaining about every single call that doesn’t go in their favor, there may just be an upset in the making.