- Sam Smith
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I know, I know. The Sacramento Kings could've been up on the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-0, and they should've been up 2-1 after three games. That's because of the gag rule. You know, each team gets one and it evens out. Sacramento's was Game 2 when it gave away a 10-point lead in the final few minutes to increase TV ratings in the Twin Cities.
Down 2-0 and going to Sacramento, this series was over.
So the Timberwolves were supposed to gag one back, and they sure tried in Game 3 despite leading by 13 points in the final minutes. They allowed the Kings to tie the game. So 2-1 Kings, right? Overtime, cowbells and maracas. No way the Kings could lose that one. Even given their allotment of several stupid behind-the-back passes per quarter and quick 3s. But gag it back they did, and here came the Kings, trailing 2-1 in their Western Conference semifinal and facing the end of their dynasty as we know it going into Wednesday's Game 4.
That's right, go down 3-1 with two more games in Minneapolis and you can forget the cowbells and start throwing cow dung. On them. You could bury this group. You can't survive this many disappointments and expectations and hold a franchise together. These are the biggest games anyone has played in Sacramento, and that includes when Jerry Brown was running the state house.
We miss Governor Moonbeam. And we may soon be saying goodbye to these Kings as we know them.
And you knew we'd get to this: It's Chris Webber's fault.
The humidity, too.
That's really the problem with the Kings, though this time you really can't blame Webber, and even the Kings. They made a reasonable judgment: We need our star to win. Forget the regular season. The Lakers certainly don't use it, for one.
The Kings played wonderfully all season and better, really, than anyone in the Western Conference. That is, until Webber returned from knee, psychic and criminal issues. But the Kings knew what the problem was. They were playing at their highest level all season. Few do. Lakers, again, anyone?
That's one of the big secrets the NBA doesn't want you to know. You know why teams raise their level in the playoffs? Because they don't quite give it all before then. It's why teams like Memphis are playoff victims. They are wonderful to watch all season. They care and they try and you can feel proud of them. But there's no more left come playoff time. They've given everything they've got.
The Kings knew that. They knew they needed another gear, and they weren't about to get it with Bobby Jackson hurt. There wasn't anymore to get from Peja Stojakovic. Which is probably one reason he hasn't been there as much in the playoffs. He had to play the regular-season role of Webber as well.
So the Kings took the gamble they had to: Put Webber in the lineup even though he's not ready. The truth is he shouldn't be playing. At all. That he isn't playing anywhere near his ability is clear. It's really a credit to him that he's trying.
The rap on Webber always has been that he's brittle and would break down, usually at the wrong time, like last season when it appeared to be the Kings' best chance for a championship with the Spurs and Lakers beating one another up. So Dallas got a pass to the conference finals and pushed the Spurs enough to see how vulnerable and beatable they were.
The Kings were a joy to watch this season. For one thing, they played offense, which is a lost art in the NBA. It wasn't about stops. It was about go. Go to the basket and you'd find the ball waiting for you. Go out on the fast break and you'd have company. They should have been celebrated for it rather than ridiculed for their lack of defense.
But it's more than not playing defense to win in the playoffs. It's not like the Kings don't try, like the Mavericks. Doug Christie is an excellent perimeter defender. Brad Miller is as tough a guy as there is. They'll make you work. But they needed that low-post offensive threat in Webber.
Yes, the Kings have big guys, but not real big guys. We're talking about guys who go into the post in the playoffs and punish a team -- the players who compromise the defense with their inside play, force teams to sag and open the court. Miller is a face-up big guy, which is why he fit so well in Indiana with Jermaine O'Neal. Vlade Divac is, well, he's not a post threat. He's the hub of a wheel with spokes that are passes. The ball is moving but rarely into the basket.
And Vlade is very slow. Verrrrrrrryyyyyyy Slooooooooowwwwwww.
The Kings needed Webber, and they needed him to be more than a threat.
He couldn't be.
It's sad to watch, really. The guy just can't move. A few years ago, and when healthy, Webber may have been the most talented player in the NBA. And that was when Michael Jordan was playing. Webber wasn't the best or smartest player, but he could do it all. Run the break, pass on the run or out of the high or low post, finish with power at the basket, shoot from range.
Those skills began to recede with injuries, and this current one is a bad one -- a microfracture in his knee. Allan Houston had it and doesn't look like he'll ever be the same. One wonders about Webber. With his age and history of injuries, how much quickness will he regain?
The ball always stopped a little too much when it got to Webber, but it was OK because he could make a lot happen with his shooting, passing and ability to get to the basket. Now, he waits for a face-up jumper. He seems unsteady on his legs, almost like balancing on pogo sticks. He doesn't finish on the break like he used to with breathtaking excitement. Maybe tomorrow, maybe. It's what the Kings keep hoping.
But the Kings believed they had no chance without him, and they may have been right. One can't say they have no chance with him because a shot here, a pass there, a miss here, and, it would've been 3-0 and they would've been looking at a beat-up Lakers or Spurs and then who knows.
But it's a long way from there now.
The Kings' other gamble was Miller. They knew the time was coming to replace Divac, and it could be now with Divac a free agent. But the endless pockets ended for the Maloofs. With big contracts for Webber, Mike Bibby, Stojakovic and then Miller, the red was starting to gush. It's why many around the NBA believe the owners won't wait much longer for a new arena and force a move or franchise exchange.
Vegas, here they come?
The Kings are over the luxury tax threshold for years to come, and the Maloofs decided they'd had enough. So in exchange for Miller, they sacrificed their depth. They let go key reserves in Jim Jackson, who started for Houston, and Hedo Turkoglu, who starts for the Spurs. It left the team in position where it had to count on Webber, and to a lesser extent Jackson. When Jackson could not return, and they've been unable to nurse Webber back to better health, it's left the team thin and depending on every Stojakovic jumper more and more. But there are only so many jumpers in a season's quiver.
So the Timberwolves after Game 1 jumped on Bibby with bigger players, like Latrell Sprewell. Bibby has driven the Kings' attack in the playoffs, but he's small and not quite quick enough. It has caused the Kings problems.
But none bigger than what they do if it's another disappointing end. They may have to begin making those decisions more quickly than they anticipated.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
10hMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo
4dIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer