- Sam Smith
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Thursday is one of those rare, special regular season days in the NBA.
You guessed it: Bulls and Wizards. Michael Jordan's former team against his current team, two young ...
What? We did that one already? Last year?
Where does the time go?
Actually, where do the rivalries go?
Boston-Philadelphia? Yes, the battle for 10th in the East. Knicks-Heat, too. New York-Boston? Just baseball now. Celtics-Lakers, Knicks-Lakers? Knicks-Nets? How about two teams with winning records? No, there aren't many rivalries anymore in the NBA. There are a lot of reasons. Playing four regular-season games, maximum, against one another is a good reason. Parity is another. It's hard to remain on top. And if you have a rival, you stoke that fire in the oven of playoff heat. (How's that for fancy sportswriting?)
OK, Spurs and Mavericks. Yes, we see them Thursday and they did play in the Western Conference finals last year. And it was a heck of a seven-game series, even if it was decided by Steve Kerr. They're from the same state and they're two pretty good teams. The Mavs have won 16 of their last 20 even if they call Scott Williams, Shawn Bradley and Danny Fortson their three-headed center weasel. Actually, they call it a monster, but no one is too scared.
Likewise with the Spurs. They've won eight of nine after another brilliant, long February road trip. But, hey, who can hate Tim Duncan? Kevin Garnett seems to have the MVP award locked up already, but Duncan is playing with very few guys who even could start for the Timberwolves. Would you take Tony Parker or Sam Cassell? Hedo Turkoglu, who is now starting for Manu Ginobili, or Latrell Sprewell? Bruce Bowen over anyone? Though he might bite them, based on all the carping lately about Bowen's play. Some think players are upset because Bowen still takes college courses to finish his degree when many in the NBA still are working on their high school equivalency diplomas.
But you get the point.
The Spurs are a nice team but hardly fearsome. I know David Robinson didn't play all the time, but he was a force just standing there when he did. And when the Spurs were tested last year, it was the veterans like Kerr who responded. More than half the team has been turned over since last season.
And in Dallas, they tweak the roster all the time as Mark Cuban sends in his fantasy picks to Don Nelson. You add Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison to a team that already was leading the league, or close, in scoring and what do you have? It's the NBA's latest reality show: Who's turn is it now to shoot?
It's hard to develop any hatred for anyone, any passion, when you're not sure what team you're playing for.
Yes, give me Lakers vs. Kings. Give the NBA Lakers vs. Kings. It's what the league wants, and even with the hot play of late of the Spurs, Mavericks and Timberwolves, that matchup appears likely to be the conference final.
Not necessarily Thursday's matchup. No Brad Miller (he's so big now we name him first of the guys missing). No Chris Webber. No Karl Malone. Yes, Darius Songaila is there. It's not crucial, although the Kings won four of five with Songaila replacing Miller in the starting lineup. But Songaila rarely gets mentioned on ESPN and he'll consider this a big favor.
They're out, but they're coming back. The Kings, even without Webber and now Miller, have, remarkably, been hanging onto the best record in the NBA.
(Here's a digression. Why doesn't Rick Adelman get more respect? There's no better team to watch, at least aesthetically, than the Kings. Their passing is brilliant. They try to score. OK, they're not the greatest defenders. But, at least, Adelman doesn't slow the game down to make it appear like they're playing defense as so many coaches do. The biggest con going on in the NBA these days -- and for years -- is overcoaching to justify those big contracts. You slow the game down, you call every play, and then it makes you look like you're working harder. I hate it! Adelman isn't afraid to turn the game over to his players. Good for him. Good for the NBA.)
Now, back to our regular bleating.
Kings-Lakers! Now, that's a rivalry. And it should be something to see. Most of the same faces are still there, and they do hate one another. I wouldn't be surprised if Rick Fox bit someone this time. Don't you call him a pretty boy.
Heck, in the playoffs a few years ago, they got the whole city in on it and tried to poison Kobe Bryant in his hotel room. Phil Jackson checked out the catalogue for double-wide house trailers and homemade liquor and found they were Sacramento's biggest exports. And imports. Just kidding, and Phil was, too. But people got mad about all that "red neck" stuff.
And the games, oh yeah. They were great games. Last-second shots to save the Lakers and the Kings, a referee controversy, professional athletes actually caring who won the game. Now, when do you ever see that!
These Lakers and Kings have been going at one another pretty much every playoffs since Jackson showed up and the Lakers woke up. Twice, the series came down to an elimination game. Twice, the Lakers won and went on to win NBA titles. No, no one has teeth in Sacramento. No! Not what you're thinking. They wear them down grinding them in frustration about the Lakers. OK, it doesn't help their cause for sophistication with all those cowbells.
They even care a little in L.A. Well, at least enough to make a dinner reservation that would require them to stay until the last minute or two.
We're not going to see much of what the Lakers can be until Malone returns. It appears like Bryant is recovering from his season of heck and has signed some sort of accord with Shaquille O'Neal for awhile. They started 18-3 and come playoff time could be ready again. They do need Malone, who appears to be able to speak Shaqese and Kobese enough to get them all working together.
Webber should be back as well between injuries. He's only on suspension now with only moderate danger of being hurt. You wish the guy better luck than he's had. He and Malone should be returning about the same time, giving both teams about a month to get together and make a playoff push.
The NBA has to talk about the regular season like it's important because of all those games they play. But the Lakers were sleepwalking -- when they weren't trying to trip one another -- through another controversy-filled season in 2000-01. When Bryant came back, they won their last nine games and breezed through the playoffs as perhaps the most dominant champion ever.
For all the talk about stars, the crucial element for a championship is continuity. The Timberwolves, Mavs and Spurs are good, but they're different. It doesn't mean the Lakers and Kings will win because it looked like the Kings would last season and Webber got hurt.
Sure, the Lakers have several key new faces as well in Malone and Gary Payton. But they do have O'Neal and Bryant, and that hasn't changed. The Kings added Miller to a group that's been together for what qualifies as a lifetime these days in the NBA. The Lakers and Kings know one another well and have brought out the best and worst in one another.
You can sense the tension watching them play. It's a feeling you get nowhere else in the NBA.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The Mavs, Spurs and Wolves are all elite teams. But Kings vs. Lakers is still the NBA's marquee matchup.