LOS ANGELES The Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings combined to play 193 regular- and postseason games. Now none of them matters but the one they will play today.
With their Western Conference finals tied at 3-3, the winner will advance to the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets starting Wednesday. The loser will have nothing but memories.
“This is what it all comes down to,” Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said.
Game7 will be played at Arco Arena in Sacramento, where the upstart Kings were astonishingly successful during the regular season (36-5) but pedestrian (5-3) during the playoffs. This is the first time in franchise history the Kings have played host to a Game7.
The two-time defending champion Lakers, meanwhile, must accomplish something they have never done under coach Phil Jackson win a Game7 on the road.
Adding to the intrigue surrounding this game is the toxic mixture of bile and venom that has fermented during this series. The officiating has been unbalanced, at best, with the home team receiving an alarmingly high number of favorable calls.
Friday night’s Game6, which the Lakers won 106-102, was awash in controversy. At the heart of the issue was the huge discrepancy in free throws by Los Angeles compared with those by Sacramento.
The Lakers were 34-for-40 overall and 21-for-27 in the fourth quarter, allowing them to win despite making only one field goal in the final 6:49. In the first five games of the series, Los Angeles attempted an average of 22.4 free throws.
The Kings attempted just 25 free throws Friday, making 18.
Sacramento star Chris Webber says the Kings who have not played in the finals since 1951 when they were the Rochester Royals will advance if the officiating is decent tonight.
“I still think we’re a better team,” Webber said, “and if we’re allowed to play our game, we’ll be all right. I just pray they let us play. It’s that simple. But I’m mad that we didn’t get a shot to win Game6. I’m mad we just had to go through the motions. I’m ready to play the next game.”
Webber said it would have been sweeter to vanquish the Lakers on their home court, and that was what the Kings fully intended to do in Game6. Having failed in that mission, Webber and his teammates welcome the chance to win the series at home.
“I relished playing them in Game6 because I wanted to beat the champs on their floor,” Webber added. “That’s why I’m mad at the disparity in the fouls called and the free throw shooting. We should have won Game6. I wish we were given a chance to.”
Understandably perhaps, Los Angeles’ Robert Horry didn’t want to hear about the officiating. He pointed to the one foul shot that Shaquille O’Neal took in Game5, won by the Kings. In that game O’Neal fouled out with 3:22 left. On Friday he finished with 41 points and 17 rebounds. O’Neal also was 13-for-17 from the line.
“I don’t even know why they’re complaining,” Horry said. “If you look at the whole series, they’ve shot more free throws in mostly every game. What, they think they don’t foul or something? We knew that was one thing they would complain about.”
Although they have not looked like the invincible team that sliced its way to a second consecutive championship by going 16-1 in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers have maintained a calm, cool demeanor. Perhaps taking a cue from Jackson, the Lakers lobbed their psychological bombs at the Kings, who are far less experienced in playing pressure games such as this.
“The pressure is on them; we play well up in that building,” O’Neal said. “We just have to go and play hard, play aggressive. If we do that, then we should be fine. The pressure is on them. The pressure is not on us.”
Said Jackson: “We carried out our end of the bargain. Now it’s time to take away what they worked all season for, and that’s home court.”