Hyped duel could make this Western true classic

Lakers-Kings animosity focuses on O'Neal-Divac, but series might be `Flop'

Pro Basketball

May 18, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

There is, of course, no way of telling whether the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers will produce a Western Conference finals that can meet all the pre-series expectations.

This much, however, is certain: If the two teams play half as well as they have talked in the lead-in period, this will be a series for the ages.

The chatter started weeks ago as the Kings and Lakers battled for the Pacific Division title and best record in the league, claimed by Sacramento by three games.

As the two teams made their respective way through the Western playoffs, they continued to take potshots at each other, and the talking has been nonstop on the way to today's series opener at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

Most of the talk has focused on the interior matchup between the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and the Kings' Vlade Divac. Divac has proclaimed that Sacramento's home-court advantage will be the difference in the series, while O'Neal has heaped scorn on Divac for his propensity to flop when touched, thus drawing fouls.

"This team, Sacramento, hasn't found a way to be consistent [against the Lakers]," said Los Angeles forward Samaki Walker. "So there's got to be doubts in their head whether they can beat this team. Shaq is looking forward to it. Everyone is getting `Flop' T-shirts ready because we know Vlade is going to be doing a lot of that."

O'Neal, who has been slowed through the first two rounds of the playoffs by a chronically sore right big toe, a pair of ankle ailments and a deep cut on his right index finger, may need the motivation, given that he is scoring four points a game fewer in the playoffs than in the regular season.

But the Kings have some injury issues as well. Starting forward Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento's second-leading scorer in the playoffs, missed the final two games of the Kings' semifinal series win over the Dallas Mavericks with a sprained right ankle. Stojakovic is expected to miss the first two games of this series.

But the Kings appear to have enough weapons - from second-year reserve Hedo Turkoglu to backup point guard Bobby Jackson to the improvement of starting point guard Mike Bibby, who is scoring 3.5 points more per game in the postseason - to handle Stojakovic's absence.

But Sacramento may be deficient in confidence. After all, the Lakers swept the Kings in last year's Western semifinals, have beaten them in six of their past seven meetings, and won this year's season series, 3-1, including a win at Arco, the toughest place to win for a road team in the NBA this season.

"If we go up there and handle business, if we win two games up there, their team has been known to fold," Walker said. "I watched them on TV last year [against the Lakers] and I basically watched them give up after going down 0-2. If we send a message by going up there and winning two games, we'll definitely have the series in our favor."

Here, too, the Kings seem to have the answer, or at least a decent verbal retort.

"Just come out and whip their [butt], I guess," Jackson said. "That's how you overcome it. There won't be anything else. We've just got to take care of business on the court."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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