Sunday, June 2
Updated: June 2, 9:37 AM ET
Kings won't be happy unless they win it all
By Jerry Bembry
ESPN The Magazine
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- They've earned, with their play, the respect of the two-time defending NBA champions. They've gained, with their desire, the respect of fans that prior to the Western Conference finals may have been non-believers.
"A championship," Kings forward Chris Webber said recently. "That's all I think about. That's what drives me. That's what I hunger for."
You can't win a title unless you first reach the Finals. And to reach the Finals, the Kings have to first defeat the Lakers in tonight's deciding game of the conference finals.
Trailing 3-2 in the series and facing elimination in Game 6, it was Shaquille O'Neal (41 points, 17 rebounds) and Kobe Bryant (31 points) who came through with big performances in Friday's 106-102 win at Staples Center. With the series tied 3-3 and the Kings facing the possible end of their season, it's Webber who is going to have to come through with a big game as Sacramento attempts to advance at Arco Arena.
"To get to be a champion, you have to go through this," Webber said of playing the defending champs. "Yeah, we're happy with what we've accomplished so far. But we want to take this a bit further."
By finishing the regular season with the NBA's best record, the Kings earned the right to have the seventh game at Arco Arena, where they had the league's best home record. But the Lakers are confident with the success they've had at Arco -- including the 106-99 win over the Kings in the opening game of the series. How even have the games been at Arco this series? The Lakers and Kings have each scored 287 points in the three games played there.
"The pressure is on them -- we play well up in that building," O'Neal said. "We know what it takes."
Yes, the Lakers during their two championship runs have the experience of a seventh game -- they had to overcome a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to defeat the Blazers in the 2000 Western conference finals.
But the Lakers have not faced a seventh game on the road in the Phil Jackson era. And while the Blazers were a team that was somewhat dysfunctional, the Kings -- who had their worst shooting game on Friday but still had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds -- play as a team.
"They've been to Game 7 before, but not against us," said Kings coach Rick Adelman. "They haven't played at Arco in a seventh game."
The Kings can't win if Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard are in foul trouble -- both fouled out on Friday in an attempt to guard Shaq. The series winner might be determined by how closely the game is called. Shaq went from shooting just one free throw in a Game 5 Lakers loss to attempting 17 from the line in Game 6.
"A couple of games I tried to be cute, tried to stay out of foul trouble," O'Neal said. "I'm going to play aggressive. If they call (Game 7) like they're supposed to call it, the outcome will be the same it was (on Friday). You've got to foul me to stop me. Period."
More importantly to the Lakers, they have to get help beyond the scoring of O'Neal and Bryant. The advantage the Kings have this series is scoring comes from different places -- six different players are scoring in double figures this series.
"In a seventh game you never know how it will go," Divac said. "But we have the better team."
The better team will be hosting the opening game of the NBA Finals on Wednesday. And from Horry's heroic game-winning shot in Game 4 to Mike Bibby's answer in Game 5, to Shaq's complete dominance in Game 6, the better team gets to be determined tonight.
"Our confidence hasn't wavered," Bryant said,. "As far as going to Arco for a Game 7, it's going to be fun.
"They played all season to get to this point," Bryant added. "It's going to be a huge challenge for us and we're looking forward to it."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at Jerry.Bembry@espnpub.com.