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Friday, October 25
Thank goodness for Lakers vs. Kings

By Marc Stein

You accept that the teams are from the same conference, same division, same state even. You deal with the cities being separated by 300-some miles, as opposed to 3,000.

Reason being: Lakers vs. Kings is the best rivalry we've got.

Mike Bibby and Kobe Bryant
Mike Bibby's Kings knocked down Kobe Bryant's Lakers more than once in last year's West finals.
There's no sense waiting for a Lakers vs. Celtics reincarnation because there isn't one coming soon. No one in the Leastern Conference, where 2002's top three teams didn't even reach the playoffs in 2001, is close to the Kings' level. Upgraded or not, New Jersey has to do it for more than one season before you'd pick the Nets to earn so much as home-court advantage -- meaning a top-four seed -- in the West.

Since the breakup of the Chicago Bulls in 1998, the Least has combined to go 4-16 in the past four Finals. The West, besides its Titans, has San Antonio and Dallas. Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman and Don Nelson will also scold anyone who leaves out Portland. "Nobody even talks about the Blazers," Nellie says, "and I think they're really good."

The talk today inevitably drifts to California, just as it did last June and ever since, long before the World Series copied the formula. It's probably no accident that the first night of NBA games on ESPN since 1984 features the challengers from the capital visiting the thrice-defending champs from Hollywood.

Kings vs. Lakers is the matchup every neutral wants to see.

"It's good for basketball," concedes Jackson, who can be more commonly heard zinging the Kings. "I'd rather have a 10-game lead going into the last month of the season. Who wouldn't? But that's not going to happen. It's good for us. (Sacramento) makes us toe the line and pay attention to what we have to do."

Adds Rick Fox, the Lakers' other designated King-zinger: "It's great for basketball. It's like a prize fight, like a lot of the great championship boxing matches. There's a lot of trash thrown around and that's what makes it interesting. People want to see who backs that up.

"That's kind of what transpired last year, I think. (The trash) was well-documented from game to game. We won a round, they won a round -- it wound up going to the final round and then it even went into overtime.

"We've had rivalries with other teams, but the talk has been kept to a minimum."

Not in Cali, thankfully. The way the Lakers and Kings have been yapping, it's clear that they've been on each other's minds all summer. The Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers have had their battles with the Blazers, Spurs and Jazz -- "We still hate Utah for how they used to beat us," said guard Derek Fisher -- but none of those matchups could generate verbal sparring in September.

Couple the hate, real or imagined, with the history of meeting in three straight postseasons and you have an event every time they meet. Even in the preseason. Even with Kobe Bryant trying to downplay the Sacramento threat by throwing out disses like: "They've got to prove us they can win on the defensive end." Even with Shaquille O'Neal still recovering from toe surgery and Mike Bibby sidelined by foot surgery.

Both should be back by the time the teams meet for real, in the first of four regular-season meetings, on Christmas Day on ABC. With or without 'em, though, you have the Lakers and Kings constantly trying to one-up the other and the Spurs and Mavericks scheming for ways to catch up. All while all those East hopefuls settle for simply trying to etch themselves back on the map.

(The Kings) blindsided us (in the conference finals), knocked us down. By the time we got up and turned around and got our hands up, it was just in time.
Rick Fox

Jackson being Jackson, he still manages to dismiss the rivalry (by zinging the Kings, naturally) not long after touting it. He suggests the league needs multiple rivalries in each conference to really stoke passions.

"The Kings are not what we consider ... we felt the Spurs were our rivals," Jackson said. "Have they replaced the Spurs? Have they replaced Portland? Have they replaced Utah, which was (Sacramento's) rival three or four years ago. They're just one of the rivals. The only reason that it's been a little more decided is (it's been) like the Trail Blazers three years ago, who lost the seventh game of (the conference finals). The Kings (also) lost the seventh game. That makes it a little more dramatic."

Fox, the team spokesman, is a bit more realistic. More than Bryant's food poisoning before Game 2, which Jackson claims is the only reason L.A. didn't sweep Sacramento for the third straight time, Fox grudgingly gives the Kings credit for resurrecting themselves after that deflating Game 1 loss at home.

Of course, Fox argues that the Kings couldn't have done so without a precipitous drop in Laker focus. But he doesn't expect Sacramento to slip. Fox sees, biased as he is, that the Kings have all the youth and the room to grow. They'll be better with the addition of Keon Clark, and the maturation of (a growing?) Hedo Turkoglu -- provided Bibby's foot heals and Chris Webber's off-court issues don't mushroom into something that takes him away from the team.

"They're here now," Fox said, putting his hand in front of his face. "They're on the radar. They don't have the element of surprise.

"They caught us like this," Fox continued, now using his arm to simulate an attacker from behind who drags his prey down by the neck. "They blindsided us (in the conference finals), knocked us down. By the time we got up and turned around and got our hands up, it was just in time."

All this spicy stuff would certainly be tastier if Lakers vs. Kings was a modern-day Celtics vs. Lakers. East vs. West. If you couldn't drive from city to city in six or so hours.

But are you going to complain? Or tune in? With this rivalry, there's no question.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for E-mail him at

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