Sacramento's never reached the Finals

Updated: May 3, 2004, 8:35 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Though the Sacramento Kings are well-established among the league's elite, they're still searching for a trip to the finals.

After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round in 2001 and the Western Conference finals in 2002, the Kings were beaten by Dallas in the conference semifinals last year after Chris Webber got hurt.

"That stuff just hardens you and gets you through difficult times," said Latrell Sprewell, whose Minnesota Timberwolves host the Kings in Game 1 of their best-of-seven conference semifinal series Tuesday night.

"They probably want a ring worse than we do," Sprewell said. "They've been close so many times. I'm sure they have a bad taste in their mouth from not being able to get to the Finals."

Sacramento was the best team in the West for most of the season, but eight losses in their last 12 games dropped the Kings to fourth in the conference and raised doubts about their ability to emerge from the league's toughest conference.

The Kings' high-scoring, passing-oriented offense was in good form, however, as they disposed of Dallas in five games in the first round. They have been idle for four days since.

"I think we're ready," guard Doug Christie said. "We've had a few days off to relax and heal up, and everybody is pretty rested. In the playoffs, you don't want too much time off, but I think this was just about right. Hopefully we'll come out sharp."

The Minnesota-Sacramento matchup is drawing less attention than the conference's other series between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, winners of the last five NBA titles.

But that doesn't matter to these teams, who have had several memorable meetings since the century turned -- though never in the postseason.

The Timberwolves, after acquiring Sprewell and Sam Cassell alongside MVP Kevin Garnett, were just behind the Kings for most of the season until taking over the top seed with a late surge.

Their come-from-behind 94-86 win at Sacramento on April 8 pushed them ahead of the Kings in the conference standings and served notice of their legitimacy.

"We enjoy playing each other," Cassell said. "There's not going to be no trash talking. It's just going to be two teams getting down and dirty and playing the game of basketball."

Most NBA champions over the past two decades were forced to endure several seasons of playoff failures before finally breaking through, so maybe this is Sacramento's time.

Though the Spurs won a title in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, it took them three years with their revamped roster before winning it all last year. The Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers needed three seasons together before starting their string of three straight championships in 2000.

Michael Jordan lost in the playoffs six times with the Chicago Bulls before winning six titles in eight years, and many of the Detroit Pistons played in the postseason five times before they won the first of two championships in 1989.

The Timberwolves, who won the first playoff series in the franchise's 15-year history last week, are trying to leapfrog that learning curve.

Garnett has been through eight postseason appearances, seven of which ended in first-round losses, but he's got 10 new teammates this year.

"We have guys that have knocked on the door already though, individually," coach Flip Saunders said. "We've gone through tons of battles.

"We know what these guys are going to do under pressure. Garnett's going to average 20 and 20, Sam's going to take huge, big shots and try to take games over, and Sprewell's going to play with the same intensity he's had here."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press