- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's a series now in Sacramento, and it's even more than that.
It's a whopper of an Either/Or.
Either the mighty Kings, after taking major injury hits for two seasons running, will continue to be the NBA's kings of playing hurt, so obscenely deep that they can keep winning without Chris Webber, even in the steel cage known as the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Or the Dallas Mavericks will keep piling on to their offensive binge for the ages from Game 2 by doing what they couldn't do last May. Which is: capitalize on another significant Kings loss to -- gasp -- advance to the conference finals.
"Obviously, if Chris Webber can't play, that's an advantage for us," said Mavericks guard Steve Nash. "But I think we're better off trying not to think about it."
Late Thursday night, before Webber's status was known, both teams were already pondering the question. The parallels were impossible to ignore, since it was a Thursday night almost exactly a year ago -- in the same building -- that Peja Stojakovic stepped on Vlade Divac's foot and rolled his ankle and never really healed until halfway through the season.
"Peja and I were just talking about that," Divac said after Game 2.
A few minutes later, asked for his recollections, Finley said: "Nick (Van Exel) and I were just talking about that."
"That" happened in Game 3, last May, Mavericks vs. Kings in the second round. On this Thursday night, the Mavericks unearthed their best offense of the season by scoring an uncatchable 83 points in the first half, and then the pain really started for the Kings.
Webber crumpled to the floor in the third quarter with what we know now is a season-ending knee tear. The news that Bobby Jackson will play in Game 3, in the face of a fractured cheekbone he sustained in Game 2's fourth quarter, only somewhat softens the blow for a club that first has to get through back-to-back games this weekend.
Remember when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban protested so vehemently against the idea, in part because a back-to-back would increase the likelihood or magnify the impact of injuries? Pay attention Saturday and Sunday to see if he was right.
Pay attention, too, to see which team responds best. The Kings have continued to play at a 60-win level despite going long stretches without Webber, Stojakovic, Jackson and Mike Bibby over the past two seasons. Of course, that's regular-season stuff. The only solace about having Jackson back is that without him the Kings would be seeing nothing but small-ball lineups from the Mavs, with Nash and Van Exel ganging up on Mike Bibby.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, have to be careful not to abandon the urgency they produced Thursday just because Webber won't be there. In the last two games it played with some desperation and belief as Dallas survived a Game 7 against Portland and blitzed a Kings team that had much of the free world convinced that a sweep was coming after Game 1.
"We never take anyone lightly," Mavericks coach Don Nelson said Friday night, having just heard the Webber news. "Good grief.
"I think the way we have to approach it is that they have the type of team that always gets someone else to step up," Nelson continued. "We just assume that the next guy, whether it's (Keon) Clark or whoever … that they'll be as good as they always are. They're used to going through these situations."
Nelson need only refer to last May to make his point. In their maiden playoff showdown, Dallas scored a valuable split at Arco Arena in the first two games and then watched as Stojakovic was carried off in the third quarter of Game 3 with a severely sprained ankle. Problem was, Dallas lost that Game 3 … and Game 4 … and then Game 5. The Kings nearly toppled the Lakers in the conference finals even though Stojakovic also missed most of that series.
Clark, mind you, is the same guy who has TWICE beaten Dallas with offensive-rebound baskets at the buzzer this season. So Nelson is wise to be wary.
Yet you can figure on the Kings expecting the biggest increase in production to come from Bibby -- Bibby included. The sensation of last spring's playoffs roasted himself after Game 2, repeatedly saying: "I've been too passive." More from Bibby is especially crucial for Sacramento even if Jackson does play, on the assumption that a facial injury could lessen the aggressiveness that makes him the league's most decorated sixth man.
"It's going to be hard," Divac said. "It seems like we're getting challenges all the time. But we're a deep team. It's going to be tough, but I think we're the better team."
Said Finley: "We have to take advantage of their loss, but you can't take that team lightly. You never know how a wounded animal will react. But we have an opportunity either way."
6hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann