- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- The best seven-man rotation in basketball is down to six. Those six, furthermore, include maybe one or two guys who can claim to be fully healthy.
When the healthiest guy has a sickly shot to go along with all of his teammates' ailments, most definitely. And it means deep trouble for the Sacramento Kings.
Peja Stojakovic arrives for Game 4 in Dallas on Monday night having missed 16 of his last 20 3-point attempts, which arguably qualifies as the biggest upset so far in these suspenseless first-round matchups. The Mavericks just played their two best defensive games of the season, back-to-back, but they're not foolish enough to claim that they're forcing all those misses out of one of the league's most feared marksmen.
It's true that length bothers Stojakovic, and that the Mavericks -- relying on lanky rookies Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels to share Peja duties with Michael Finley -- are longer defensively on the perimeter than they used to be.
Yet something else is happening here. A few things, actually.
A. The greatest fears of Kings diehards are playing out. Stojakovic was undeniably an MVP candidate through 60 games, but he's still struggling to adapt to his new role as the No. 2 option, even though Chris Webber is already two months into his comeback. Ball movement has been a problem throughout those two months, and Stojakovic has gradually lost some aggressiveness. Example: He took only one shot in Saturday's second half.
B. Of perhaps greater concern, kindred spirit Vlade Divac is averaging only 19 minutes per game in this series, having been repeatedly small-balled off the court by the speedy little Mavs. Using their Serbian telepathy, Vlade goes out of his way to find Peja cutting backdoor to the hoop or flaring to the 3-point line off screens. Because Divac is on the court less, Stojakovic is getting the ball less.
C. Of perhaps greatest concern, Sacramento's locker room doesn't feel like the most harmonious place these days. Chemistry has always been one of the Kings' greatest assets, but you don't see it oozing from this group. The stress created by injuries and the Kings' freefall late in the regular season -- and, quite possibly, the pressure stemming from past playoff failures -- is palpable.
Winning the first two games at home, after a 4-8 slide to close the regular season, apparently wasn't a lasting tonic. To wit:
Said Mike Bibby, when asked to explain how Stojakovic could wind up with only nine shots and seven points in a playoff game: "I think he missed a few shots and stopped shooting."
Added Webber, when asked if he's worried about Peja's total of just 20 points from Games 2 and 3: "You can't guarantee a shot going in -- all you can do is measure a man's heart. I hope the effort will be there."
Webber walked off before it could be clarified whether he was referring to Stojakovic specifically or the whole team. If it was Peja alone, you'd have to classify that as a shot at Peja, which is obviously the last thing the Kings need.
Stojakovic, mind you, is beating himself up plenty. He didn't go to sleep until 4 a.m. after Saturday's loss and a soul-searching meal with Divac. He is vowing to be more aggressive and more active, as Sacramento hopes to re-establish its famed ability to carve up opponents on the weak side.
"I'm not frustrated," Stojakovic insists. "But I know I need to play better."
The other Kings would be wise to do anything they can to help him -- Webber and Bibby, especially. These aren't the Kings of 2002, who could lose Stojakovic to an ankle injury in Game 3 and still dust the Mavs in five. Webber (knee), Bibby (hip) and Brad Miller (elbow and ankle) are all playing hurt, and Bobby Jackson remains out for the postseason with an abdominal injury. Divac is a creaky 36 on his best days, and the reduction in playing time can't be helping his conditioning.
All of which makes it pretty clear that the Kings have to hope Peja's disappearance in this latest Game 3 was merely temporary. Without the passing and cutting and shredding that usually starts with Vlade and Peja, the Kings stand around and force shots and get rather easy to guard. Even for the Mavericks.
If it continues, you'll be hearing as much about the downward direction of the Kings' ever-closing Window Of Opportunity as their manpower shortage.
Male of the Weekend
Karl Malone. Did someone say Mailman of the Weekend? Malone hadn't scored more than 20 points in any game as a Laker before Sunday. He only reached the 20 plateau four times in his maiden season with L.A. Figures, then, that he scores 20 by halftime of Game 4 in Houston and finishes with 30 points and 13 rebounds, becoming just the second 40-year-old in league history (along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to score 30 points in a playoff game at that age. Then again ... maybe there was a hint this was coming. Malone's previous 20-point game before Game 4 came April 1, also against the Rockets. Fact is, he had to be good just to beat out Sunday's competition: Kenyon Martin (36 points, 13 rebounds) and Tony Parker (29 points, 13 assists) had breakout games to help last June's NBA Finals foes complete first-round sweeps.
E-Mail of the Weekend
No worthy submissions. That's twice now.
STEIN: What's with you people? It's the playoffs!
Speak of the Weekend
"I would love for Dirk to average 50 for the series, but it'll be tough."
— Dallas' Michael Finley, explaining why he and other Mavs have to consistently provide more offense if they hope to overturn a 2-1 series deficit. Dirk Nowitzki, incidentally, would have to score 269 points in the final four games of the Sacramento series -- assuming it goes seven -- to hit that 50-point average. That works out to an average of 67.3 points over the next four games, so Finley's probably right.
Stat of the Weekend
Thirty-three days. That's how much calendar time has elapsed since the San Antonio Spurs' last loss. The defending champions closed the regular season on an 11-0 run, and just swept Memphis out of the first round to earn themselves a fair bit of rest before opening the second round at home against the Lakers.
Stat of the Weak-end
The Lakers' Rick Fox played 66 minutes in the Houston series before scoring his first point, on a free throw in the first half of L.A.'s 92-88 overtime victory in Sunday's Game 4.
Peja Stojakovic isn't among the Kings' walking wounded, but his shooting eye has gone awry.