Sunday, June 02, 2002

Wild West series comes down to Game 7

AP Sports Writer

        SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After two weeks of bad burgers, buzzer-beaters and brilliant basketball, the epic Western Conference finals will be decided in one game Sunday in front of the NBA's loudest fans.

        To Phil Jackson, who knows more about playoff success than just about anyone, it's the only appropriate way for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings to cap the greatest chapter yet in their thriving rivalry.

        “There's a certain thrill about (Game 7) that you don't find anywhere else in this game,” the Los Angeles coach said Saturday.

        The biggest game in Arco Arena's history matches the two-time defending champion Lakers against the Kings, who won the Pacific Division title with the NBA's best regular-season record. The winner will be heavily favored to beat Eastern Conference champion New Jersey in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night.

        The series has been a fascinating clash of styles, with the Kings' consummate team play and the Lakers' unrivaled star power essentially battling to a draw. Sacramento has outplayed Los Angeles for long stretches, but the Lakers' will and championship wiles have generated just as many victories.

        “I know the fans are loving what they're seeing, and that's good for basketball — that's good for all these kids watching on TV like I used to,” Sacramento's Chris Webber said.

        “I think it's great for the sport. Our sport is showcasing its young talent and older talent. (The series has) some great gunslinging, Pepto-Bismol games for people to watch.”

        The series — the first all-California conference final in 29 years — became a Golden State classic when Robert Horry hit his game-winning 3-pointer in Game 4. It became one of the NBA's best recent playoff series when Mike Bibby's jumper won Game 5, and it only got better when Shaquille O'Neal played a career-defining game on Friday night to save the Lakers' season.

        It also has been a contentious series, with everything from hotel room service food to the officiating open to critique. The Lakers complained that O'Neal wasn't getting the respect he deserved while Sacramento won three of four games midway through the series — and in Game 6, the Kings were whistled for a foul nearly every time they touched O'Neal.

        The Lakers expect another huge game from O'Neal, who overcame the multitude of injuries that have plagued him all year to record 41 points and 17 rebounds in Game 6 while playing with the unique combination of grace and brute force that set him apart from every other player.

        “If you look at the history of the game, any player that has more than two championships, they've won them each a different way,” O'Neal said. “We play well up in that building. We just have to go and play hard, play aggressive. If we do that, then we should be fine. The pressure's on them. The pressure is not on us.”

        The edge of big-game experience falls to the Lakers, though the champs haven't faced a Game 7 in two years — and the franchise has never won a Game 7 on the road, going winless in five tries.

        “The Kings will have to play a game with some pressure that they've never felt before,” said Rick Fox, who's always eager to needle the Kings. “Some of their coaching staff has, but the intensity of that is going to be great.”

        But the Kings, who haven't yet lost consecutive games in the playoffs, aren't buying it. After all, they're not exactly playoff neophytes in their fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.

        “I don't believe anything the Lakers say,” Webber said. “I've learned that all that is talk and rhetoric. We're a good team, and we're going to go out ready to play like every game. Experience, no experience, this and that — none of that matters when get between the lines and give it your all, and you feel like it's your turn.”

        The Kings earned the right to play host in this game largely because of their 36-5 record at Arco during the regular season, which boosted Sacramento to a league-best 61-21 record overall and the franchise's first Pacific Division title.

        “They've been to Game 7 before, but not against us,” coach Rick Adelman said. “They haven't been there before. They haven't played at Arco in a seventh game.”

        But the homecourt advantage hasn't meant much in the playoffs. Perhaps overexcited by their exhausting fans, Sacramento has lost one home game in each playoff series, including Game 1 to the Lakers.

        Adelman and Sacramento president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie both spoke to the Kings on Saturday at their training complex next door to Arco Arena.

        Petrie and Adelman, who built and taught the core group of players who resurrected the franchise from decades of mediocrity, both affirmed their belief in the Kings' ability to shock the mighty defending champs.

        “It's probably down to which teams gets that one break in the fourth quarter that decides it,” Adelman said. “This is what we worked for all year. We want to play here. In my mind, this is what makes the game fun.”


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