Kings of self-delusion
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

Here's what the Sacramento Kings have been thinking -- and saying -- ever since they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals back in June:

Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber
Chris Webber, right, and the Kings seem to think they conquered Shaq and the Lakers in June.
There should be an asterisk put on the Lakers' championship ... Horry's game-winning shot in Game 5 was an accident ... the NBA didn't want a small-market team in the Finals, so the refs hosed us in Game 6 ... we'll get the Lakers next time ... we're the real champs.

It's all nonsense!

The truth is every Sacramento player, with the notable exception of Mike Bibby, choked big-time in the waning minutes of Game 7. A sad-sack series of airballs, backboard-fracturing jumpers, wide-open shots not taken, silly get-me-out-of-here fouls, wobbly passes and tentative defense.

As far as the refs sandbagging the Kings? Everybody knows that challengers never dethrone reigning champions via split decisions -- to cop somebody else's crown requires a knockout. Slam it! Bam it! Take it! And never expect the Big Whistles to give the pretenders the benefit of the doubt.

Big market, small market? This is the same argument George Karl and Ray Allen used two seasons ago to explain the Milwaukee Bucks' loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. While I can easily imagine David Stern giving demographic instruction to the league's officiating corps, it should be noted that recent NBA finalists included such mini-metropolises as Salt Lake City, San Antonio and Indianapolis.

And as for getting the Lakers "next time" ... this is wishful thinking. There's no guarantee the Kings (nor the Lakers, for that matter) will once again battle for the Western Conference title come June.

The Kings' lamentations and lame boastings are embarrassing, losers trying to convince the world (and themselves) that they really are winners.

***** ***** *****

Because the view from the couch is restricted by the aim of the red-eyed monster, I wholeheartedly endorse the league's newest advertising slogan: "NBA -- Love It Live." For sure, even nose-bleed seats are costly these days, but being a real-live spectator means you can look wherever you please. (See for yourself who's filling the lane on a fast break, who's racing back on defense, who's abandoning the battle of the defensive-glass to leak downcourt.) Only in person can you hear the gruntings and thumpings when the bodies collide.

Rick Adelman
Rick Adelman knows his team doesn't win with muscle.
In recent years, I'd only seen the Kings play from the safety of my own living room, so I was glad for the chance to witness them playing the Knicks last week in New York.

As a longtime admirer of Pete Carill (and his guru, Butch van Breda Kolf), I was truly inspired by Sacramento's Princetonian offense: Their passing skills were exceptional, and their back-door cuts were slick. Give-and-go. Give-and-flare. The players working together in total harmony like a handful of fingers, which made for some aesthetically pleasing basketball. Zip! Stojakovic passes to Webber, fakes a basket-cut, then fades toward the corner, receives a crisp pass, and buries a long-range jumper. Zap! Every time a Knick defender turned his head, the Kings wound up with a layup or an unguarded jumper.

I hadn't seen such finesse since the heyday of the three-card-monte sharks in Times Square.

However, as delightful as the Kings' light-footed cunning and sleight-of-hand might be, the cruel realities of NBA action sometimes require brawnier skills. Like rebounding, playing effective interior defense and jamming cutters.

Imagine my surprise when I heard nary a grunt nor a thump at either end of the court. Owing primarily to the Kings' sheer lack of physicalness, neither team attempted a free throw in the entire first quarter.

There was Webber repeatedly settling for mid-range jumpers. His only ventures toward the hoop were embroidered with fancified crossover dribbles forced into heavy traffic (which the alert Knicks quickly doubled) and led to all of Webber's five turnovers. And even when Stojakovic and Vlade Divac tip-toed to the basket, they consistently leaned away from any possible contact.

As the game progressed, the Kings' deftness deteriorated more and more into passivity. Their offense -- mostly splits, isolations off of staggered picks, freewheeling screen/rolls, and a series of two-man plays -- lost any traces of heat and passion.

Predrag Stojakovic
Peja Stojakovic is a dead-eye shooter, but his defense can be deadly for Sacramento.
Even worse was the Kings' soft defense. Sure, they played the passing lanes as well as anybody, but nobody played the bone-on-bone type of defense that wins championships. In fact, the Kings instigated only one instance of purposeful rock-'em-sock-'em defense -- in the second quarter, when Lawrence Funderburke used a shoulder to discourage Othella Harrington from cutting freely across the lane.

(Later, when I asked one of Sacramento's coaches about his team's pitty-patty game plan, the coach shrugged and said, "That's just who we are.")

A handy excuse for Sacramento's dismal performance (a 95-88 loss, signifying the Kings' third consecutive defeat, and the Knicks' only victory of the season) was their rash of injuries. Divac had a bad back, Keon Clark was incapacitated with a groin pull, Scot Pollard was one game away from being IL'd with a stress fracture in his spine, and Mike Bibby was still recovering from foot surgery.

But, hey, just look around the league and note who else is down: Shaq, Antonio McDyess, Latrell Sprewell, Lamar Odom, Dajuan Wagner, Raef LaFrentz, Marcus Camby, Glen Rice, Reggie Miller, Elden Campbell, Derrick Coleman and Vince Carter.

'Tis the season when the players are still recouping from summer surgeries, or are having difficulty adjusting to the sudden change from no-sweat exhibition contests to maxi-chops games that count.

It's also true that finesse teams like the Kings rely on timing more than gangbuster teams like Detroit -- which means that Sacramento will get more in synch as the long season unwinds. (Although last season, with substantially the same roster, the Kings went 15-5 out of the gate.)

Mike Bibby
Perhaps Mike Bibby's return will help get the Kings all on the same page.
The game was won by the Knicks in the fourth quarter when Lee Nailon came off the bench and scored 10 points. There was Nailon setting up either on the left box or along the right baseline, spinning, curling, darting to the hoop, absolutely disdaining the presence of his "defender," Stojakovic. A jumper. A reverse layup. Even a stuff.

And why didn't the Kings send a double-teamer to put Nailon's offense in a box? Because they wanted to force Stojakovic to buckle down and play defense. Two-timing Nailon would've only sent the message that Peja could just waltz through the entire season without ever really guarding anybody.

Coach Rick Adelman is one of the best in the business. More importantly, he appreciates (and undoubtedly contributes to) his team's good chemistry. Working with this particular group is his delight, and he's sure they'll all eventually get tuned into each other on both ends of the court. And give Adelman credit for not bailing out Stojakovich. It takes guts to put a game at risk just to prove a point.

So, expect the Kings to have their act together by the beginning of December.

If you're a Sacramento fan, hope that Bibby's return to action will eventually hearten his teammates and propel them toward another postseason showdown with the Lakers.

But the question lingers: Do the Kings have enough grit to ever become the real champs?

Be wary, then, of wagering your mortgage on the Kings, if only because real champs don't whine.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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