(Robert Horry and Chris Webber. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn, Getty Images)
The regular season buildup to the Kings-Lakers rivalry did not disappoint in the postseason. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Sacramento blew a game they once led by 20 when Robert Horry nailed a last-second three. Game 5 was just as dramatic. This time Mike Bibby hit the game-winning shot while Horry's closing three rimmed out. Game 6 featured some of the worst officiating ever seen in the NBA. The refs favored the home Lakers so much that they shot 27 foul shots in the 4th quarter, while the Kings attempted just 9. Los Angeles' 106-102 win had many shouting conspiracy and set the scene for a seventh and final game in Sacramento.
In Game 7, the Kings had no one to blame but themselves. Sacramento went a miserable 16-30 at the foul line, difficult to believe for one of the best shooting teams in the league. They were even worse from downtown: 2-20. Doug Christie, normally a solid outside shooter, ended his terrible series with a 2-11 performance. 20-point scorer Peja Stojakovic, who missed the first four games of the series due to an injury, was just as myopic: 3-12 including 0-6 on three-pointers. Meanwhile, Chris Webber vanished in the second half, only producing 6 points.
(Mike Bibby single-handedly kept the Kings in the game. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn, Getty Images)
Even with all that against them, the Kings were still at home and were still in the game. Kobe Bryant scored 30 points but left the door open when he failed to make a single field goal during the final two periods. In complete contrast, Mike Bibby, the only King to step up when he had to, was awesome. A dozen of his 29 points came in the 4th quarter, which kept Sacramento in the game.
With the Lakers leading 97-96 with 10 seconds on the clock, Hedo Turkoglu dished the ball to a wide-open Stojakovic in the corner. Peja's potential game-winner was an air ball, a lasting image of the Kings' futility in the final minutes. Luckily for them, the ball was rebounded by Shaq, who predictably split a pair at the foul line. On their next possession, Bibby was bumped by Bryant as he tried to come off a screen. Bibby hit both free throws and tied it at the century mark. Shaq missed a mid-range hook shot at the closing seconds and the fantastic series was extended by five minutes.
The overtime went much the way the 4th quarter did. Both teams were neck-and-neck with LA grasping a thin lead. In fact it was deja vu with under a minute left as Bibby weaved through defenders and kicked it to an open Doug Christie. Christie's shot was even uglier than Stojakovic's, missing the rim entirely as it clanked off the glass. LA made their free throws and finished them off, 112-106. One of the greatest series in NBA history ended with a bang, with the Lakers coming away with the victory.
"We made some mistakes, but we know what it takes to win," said Shaq, who went 11-15 at the foul line. "We took the high percentage shots, stepped up to the line and hit our free throws and played well."
"The Kings were playing better basketball than us and we were able to fight back," said Bryant. "It shows our character, to fight through adversity. When we were down, nobody hung their head, that's what impressed me the most."
"It hurts, it really hurts big," said a heartbroken Mike Bibby. "(But) we have many more years of this to come. We should have closed it out when we could, but we have many more years of this." Unfortunatley, the Webber-Bibby Kings never advanced to the NBA Finals.
(Shaq and Kobe got to go to the finals again. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn, Getty Images)
Game 7 between the Kings and Lakers got the highest rating (14.4) of any non-finals game in the post-Jordan era, which was fitting considering there were 16 ties and 19 lead changes. The Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals, where they swept the New Jersey Nets and won their third consecutive title. In the offseason, Mike Bibby, who scored 14 of the Kings' last 18 points, had his clutchness rewarded with an $80 million deal. The Sacramento Kings retooled and were on pace for the Finals in 2003. However, Chris Webber suffered a season-ending injury in the Western semifinals; without their best player, the Kings lost to the Dallas Mavericks in seven games.
Many still look at that series and wonder what-if... What if Stojakovic didn't score a grand total of 20 points in the series? What if Divac doesn't kick the ball out to Horry in Game 4? What if the officiating was fairer in Game 6? What if Christie could hit a shot, or if the Kings could make a free throw, or knock down a three? Who knows... but what-ifs don't account for anything. The Kings were a great team in 2002, but when it came time to show up when it mattered, the Lakers were the real deal.