<
>

Coaches not surprised, even if fans are

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When this playoff series began, defense seemed certain to be a dirty word. After all, the Mavericks and the Kings were the NBA's two highest-scoring teams -- and usually two of the most indifferent on the other end of the court.

But in the three games since the Kings' 116-105 win in the
opener, points have been shockingly scarce. What's more, two games
turned on heady last-second plays by Peja Stojakovic, who isn't
exactly known as a defensive stopper.

The Kings could end the series with a home victory in Game 5
Thursday night even though they're missing an unusual number of
shots, laboring in their half-court offense and averaging nearly 17
turnovers per game.

And though the Mavs have shot even worse, they're on the brink
of elimination despite leading Sacramento in most other statistical
categories.

So what in the name of Mark Aguirre or Reggie Theus is going on? The Mavs and the Kings both say their fans don't recognize them
because this strange series has been governed by defensive
excellence, not offensive ineptitude.

Though the Kings are in control, coach Rick Adelman bristles
when he still hears dismissive comments about his team's defense.

"Because of the way we play during the regular season, it seems
like some people just (believe) that our two teams don't do some of
the things that other teams do," Adelman said. "It's a crock. ...
It's such an easy thing to do. It's such an easy way to talk, and
when it's proven wrong, no one remembers it."

The Kings believe they've proved their defensive mettle by
holding the NBA's third-best shooting team during the regular
season to 38 percent in the playoffs. Six of the Mavericks' top
seven scorers are below their regular-season averages, with only
rookie Marquis Daniels raising his game.

Stojakovic, the NBA's second-leading scorer, rarely has been
offensively assertive since Chris Webber returned from a knee
injury nearly three months ago. He hasn't been dominant in the
playoffs, either, averaging just 17 points -- but his defense helped
to quell two late Dallas comeback attempts.

In Game 2, Stojakovic tipped the ball out of Michael Finley's
hands as the Dallas star went up for a potential game-tying shot in
Sacramento's 83-79 victory. In Game 4, Stojakovic didn't allow the
Mavericks' pick-and-roll to confuse him, and he forced Steve Nash
into a terrible shot to end the Kings' 94-92 win.

"I can't say I'm a great defender, but I'm getting better,"
Stojakovic said. "Both teams are not shooting the ball well. I
know people expected high-scoring games, but I guess we got
something else: more high-intensity games, more low-scoring
games."

The Mavericks have just one more chance to improve their
late-game execution, which has deserted them twice. Though Dallas'
Big Three has been together for six seasons, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Finley have exhibited little chemistry when it
matters most.

"We've done it before," Finley said. "It's not like it's the
middle of the season, and we're searching for our offense. We know
what our offense can do. It's just about finding it again. I'm not
ready to go home and put this season away, and hopefully my
teammates feel the same way."

A day after the Mavericks acknowledged being deflated by their
dire circumstances, Dallas' spirits picked up. Several players
spent the final minutes of their workout at Arco Arena playfully
trying to fling a basketball from the court into the luxury boxes.

"You guys can look at the numbers and say a lot of things, but
we think we've played really good defense," said forward Antoine Walker, who has been left on the bench in many key situations
during the playoffs.

"We just haven't brought the offense to go with it. ... If we
can win this one, we can really put them in a bind. They'll have to
go back to Dallas, and you know they don't want that."