- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. While the Los Angeles Lakers were sweeping the Sacramento Kings out of last season's playoffs, Chris Webber limped on two sprained ankles.
Webber silently promised to learn from the experience, and the chance to use those lessons will come when the Kings meet the Lakers today in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The series will be a defining moment for Webber, who has the skills, money and fame of an elite player but none of the team success that separates Kobe Bryant from his peers.
"It's never good to take a beating like that, but we all saw what great players can do in big situations," Webber said. "Kobe's got that killer thing, that instinct. You've got to admire that thing when you see it."
Perhaps uninterested in the absence of a serious challenge, the Lakers didn't play spectacular basketball in the first two rounds but Bryant carried them to victory down the stretch of several games.
Averaging 26.1 points, Bryant is the playoffs' leading scorer among players whose teams are still alive. But Bryant's numbers don't reveal his game-changing ability and the fear felt by opponents who see him on the court with the game on the line.
"If we're down by 10, we have to fight to win the game," Bryant said yesterday before the Lakers traveled north to Sacramento. "Hopefully, that won't happen, [but] when the fourth quarter comes, I turn it up a notch. I read the defenses in the first 3 quarters. Then you take advantage of what you've read."
Doug Christie, who will be matched up against Bryant on defense, has a goal: "To keep him a little bit out of his rhythm until the fourth quarter, at least. That's all you can really do."
Last season, Bryant scored 36 points in Game 3 of the Lakers' conference semifinal against Sacramento. After rushing home to Los Angeles on the off day to be with his ailing wife, he returned to Arco Arena and had 48 points and 16 rebounds in the series-clinching victory.
"Kobe is the toughest player in the league down the stretch," Kings coach Rick Adelman said. "He's got that striving in him that as a coach, you just can't teach. Everybody knows it, but you can't do anything about it."
There was no need for Adelman to apply a last name to a comparison that's never made lightly. The league's next dynasty after Jordan's Bulls would be halfway to Chicago's total of six championships with a ring this spring.
It's enough to wipe the smile off Webber's face. After nine NBA seasons, he is in his first conference final. Though the Kings are built for a long run of success, Webber has his best chance to win a title that would erase frustration from his years on poor teams.
Webber's chance to show his mettle was compromised last season, when two severely sprained ankles and the resulting cortisone shots kept him at half strength during the Lakers' sweep.
"The doctors told me I shouldn't have been playing," Webber said. "If you saw the way I was running up and down the court, you knew it, but if I'd said anything, that would have been crying."
Webber faced the Lakers just once during the regular season. Injuries kept him out of the other three games, including the Kings' lone victory over Los Angeles early in the season.
So far, the playoffs have been rewarding and frustrating for Webber. He averaged more than 25 points against Dallas in the conference semifinals, displaying a willingness to go inside for difficult baskets while also shooting well from the perimeter.
But Webber also drew an alarming number of offensive fouls, and he fouled out twice against the Mavericks.
Though he's reluctant to admit it, Webber feels officials don't give him the respect afforded Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal but he also readily admits he hasn't earned it with rings yet.
"You find yourself second-guessing and thinking about every move you make," Webber said. "I don't even want the ball in the post against a guard now, because you can just see them standing there, waiting to flop. As many offensive fouls as I've got in the playoffs, I expect Shaq to get four a game."
Perhaps because they feel a similar responsibility to carry their teams, Bryant and Webber share a fondness for playing on the road. Bryant will get all the animosity he can handle in Sacramento, where the Arco crowd is sure to be frenzied.
"I don't feel a burden," Bryant said. "The way that it can become a big deal is if we allow Sacramento to feed off that energy. There's no fear. It's just basketball."

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