Remember When L.A. vs. Sacramento Actually Meant Something?
With the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings engaging in battle later this evening, I figured it appropriate to take a look back at what might have been the NBA's greatest rivalry of the last ten years. With the departures of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie and Peja Stojakovic from Sacramento and the departures of Shaquille O'neal, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry from Los Angeles, this really isn't much of a rivalry anymore. Rivalries usually come about when one dominant team is challenged by an up and coming team year after year in the playoffs. In most instances the up and coming team usually breaks through and beats their previously dominant rival. Due to injuries to key players and the resiliency of the veteran Lakers squad, the Kings never capitalized on the opportunity to overtake their rival.
The rivalry began when the young, brash kings of the 99-00 season played the 67 win Lakers in the first round of the playoffs and pushed them to the brink of elimination. The next season, the Kings added Doug Christie and moved Peja Stojakovic into the starting line up and became one of the better teams in the league. Despite the improvements of the young gunners from up north, the Lakers, wary of a team that had almost upset them in the previous season, quickly defeated their overconfident rivals.
That defeat left the Kings up in the air with several things. First, Chris Webber was questioning if he would even return to Sacramento. As well, the Kings young point guard, Jason Williams, wasn't so sure he wanted to return either. Along with Divac, Williams and Webber were the main pieces behind Sacramento's rise to glory, so to see both of them leave would be a bitter pill for Kings' fans to swallow. In the end, Williams would move on to Memphis for young sharp shooting point guard Mike Bibby, while Webber would re-sign.
With a headier point guard at the helm, and Webber performing at an MVP level, many experts had Sacramento pegged to defeat the Lakers in the 2002 playoffs. The Kings came into the playoffs with the best record in the league, and thus home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Kings and many of their supporters were certain that a defeat of their long time rival was eminent. The problem was that the Lakers weren't quite ready to go down.
In game four of the series, the Kings (already owning a 2-1 lead in the series) were hammering the Lakers in their own building and looked as if they would take a commanding 3-1 series lead over their rivals. But in the same fashion that we'd grown accustomed to over the years, the Lakers put together another incredible come back (capped by Robert Horry's spectacular game winning three pointer) and stunned their young rivals. The Kings from two years previous would have folded after that loss, but not this team. The Kings captured game five on a game winning shot from Mike Bibby, and almost closed the Lakers out in game six in Los Angeles. With the Lakers barely slipping by in game six, the table was set for a classic game seven...and classic it was! The Lakers and Kings went blow for blow that afternoon, turning the game seven of that series in an instant overtime classic. In the end Shaq and Kobe prevailed again. At the end of the game, all anyone could talk about was how they couldn't wait for the two teams to play each other again the next season. The Lakers would go on to defeat the New Jersey Nets in the Finals and capture their third straight NBA championship.
The next season, despite expectations, verbal jabs from Shaquille O'neal (he had taken a liking to calling the Kings the Sacramento Queens) and a pre-season fight between Doug Christie and Rick Fox that caused the rivalry to become more heated than it had ever been, the Lakers and Kings would fail to meet in the playoffs. The Kings were stacked that season, but fell short of their championship dreams when Chris Webber blew out his knee in a second round series vs. the up and coming Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers season was snake bitten from the jump, as Shaquille O'neal started the first two months of the season on the sidelines recovering from toe surgery. After fighting the entire season to gain a top 5 playoff spot, the Lakers lost to their other rivals (The San Antonio Spurs) in the second round of the playoffs. In a bit of poetic justice from the year previous, a Robert Horry three point shot that would have capped a 25 point come back and given the Lakers a 3-2 lead over the Spurs, went as far down as it could possibly go without counting, and then toilet bowled its way out. It was as if the basketball gods were saying: "if the Kings aren't going to the conference finals, what's the point of you guys going?" After the 2004 season, both the Lakers and Kings as we knew them were dismantled.
Seeing the current state of both teams has me wishing for a time when a match up between the two of them meant you were in for an incredible match up on the level of the Lakers v. Celtics and Bulls v. Pistons match ups we saw in the past. Anyhow, here's a video that takes a look back at one of the most incredible rivalries in NBA history: