SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Elimination game. No two words can get a team more fired up when it comes to the NBA playoffs. Those words are why you hear the phrase "backs are against the wall" so often in the postseason. When the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings play Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal at Arco Arena, there'll be lots of energy to go with those clichés. Every game from here on out is an elimination game. But for Game 6, the "backs" in question will have the names of Bibby, Jackson and Stojakovic stitched on them.
Actually, there is no shame in losing to a team with a higher seed and a better regular-season record while your best player is sidelined for the rest of the playoffs. But let's not kid ourselves. The Kings were the favorite to win the title this season. Ownership invested over $210 million in just two players, not so much to have them here five years from now (that would be nice) but so they could win a championship this year. In '03. In June.
Even so, that should be the furthest thing from the players' minds. They have more important things to think about, like not getting eliminated. But despite having such a rabid crowd behind you, it's impossible not to have such things go through your mind when you are on the brink of a colossal failure. All we heard for the last year was how the Kings wanted to take out the Lakers on their way to winning a championship. Now they face elimination from a team that isn't exactly the '89 Pistons when it comes to defense. But again, the Kings must put that stuff out of their minds and concentrate on playing their style of basketball, not what we witnessed in the second half of Game 5.
Here are the things that should be on the Kings' to-do list:
Vlade Divac has got to be a major contributor or they will be fighting an uphill battle.
"Having him in foul trouble in Game 5 killed us," Kings head coach Rick Adelman said. "Our offense runs through him and it hurts us when he's not in there."
Indeed. When Vlade was taken out of the late stages of Game 3, the Kings lost their rhythm and a nine-point lead. Divac will at least cancel out another surprise effort from Raef LaFrentz.
The Kings need to improve their ball movement. It sounds odd to say that about the Kings, third in the league in assists per game (24.8) this season, but when they get fewer assists than their opponents -- Dallas had the edge 23-19 in Game 5 -- something is very wrong. The Kings win better than 90 percent of their games when they record more assists than the other team, partly because they are forever moving, cutting and fastbreaking -- things that drive other teams crazy. They must run whenever they can. If the break collapses, kick it out and reverse the ball to Doug Christie or Peja Stojakovic spotting up in the corner.
Having said all that, whoever plays better defense will win the game. It doesn't get any easier than that. So much for in-depth analysis, but when your backs are against that darned wall, the fundamental lessons you learned when you first started playing basketball are really the only things that can help you. There's nothing I can write in this column when it comes to defense that will make a light bulb go on over the Kings' heads. They already know the importance of defense and how to play it.
Adelman doesn't have any new tricks to teach them. There is nothing else to learn.
Playoff basketball is about applying what you have, and doing that with more heart than you ever have before. That's what will win Game 6 and ultimately this series.
There's been a lot of talk about the team that wins Game 5 wins a seven-game series 83 percent of the time. The Kings shouldn't worry about stats like that. First of all, the reason the Game 5 winner usually closes out the series is because it's usually the home team that wins Game 5. And the home team almost always wins a seven-game series. So that stat is more about home-court advantage than actually winning Game 5. But the thought has been percolating in the minds of the Kings for 36 hours and the damage has already been done.
Here's a more important stat they're probably thinking about, too: The team that is up 3-2 and wins Game 6 wins the series 100 percent of the time.
Not to worry. All the Kings have to do is leave their hearts on the court and take it one elimination game at a time.
Chris Palmer is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine.