- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Perhaps their first road playoff loss in two years hadn't sunk in. Perhaps it was the realization that, despite having one of their two superstars at half-strength and many of their key players shackled with foul problems, the Los Angeles Lakers still erased most of a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit before losing to the Sacramento Kings on Monday.
Whatever the reason, the Lakers, who will play host to the Kings in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals in two days, didn't seem the least bit flustered over the 96-90 loss that evened the series at 1-1. They were, however, frustrated with the referees.
"Those who understand the game know what really went on," said Shaquille O'Neal, who punished the Kings inside with 35 points and 12 rebounds. "We had a couple of chances to win. We just missed a couple of shots. So we feel good about that. In order to beat us, you have to beat us fair and square. There is only one way to beat us. It starts with a 'C' and ends with a 'T.'"
O'Neal made that remark about cheating after a cheerful exchange with reporters not long after the loss, in which the Kings made 13 more trips to the free-throw line. O'Neal was hit with three offensive fouls, two of which were questionable, and entered the fourth quarter with four fouls.
Teammate Robert Horry ripped down 20 rebounds but fouled out. And small forward Rick Fox was also hampered with foul problems. In all, five Lakers finished the game with at least four fouls.
That said, the Lakers accomplished exactly what they wanted: They took away the Kings' vaunted homecourt advantage. Perhaps that's why the Lakers were almost giddy as they prepared to take the charter back to Los Angeles late Monday night.
"We have no regrets about this game," Horry said. "We took away their biggest advantage. We would have liked to have gone up 2-0, but it wasn't meant to be. That's OK, though. We weren't at full strength, but the game went down to the end."
Whether this is an indication of the Lakers' overconfidence won't be known until the teams face each other in a pair of games this weekend.
Though Kobe Bryant was slowed with food poisoning, it would be a huge oversight if Horry and his teammates think they were the only ones not at full strength.
The Kings played their third consecutive game without the services of All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic. In his place, however, Hedo Turkoglu, who played 29 scoreless minutes in Game 1, gave the Kings a lift. Turkoglu scored eight points on 4-for-8 shooting not exactly big numbers, but Turkoglu and his teammates will take what they can get.
What they are truly hoping for is Stojakovic's return, which right now appears will come in Sunday's Game 4 at the earliest.
"I needed to do something to help this team," Turkoglu said. "But we still haven't played our best. I can't imagine how good we can be when Peja comes back. I think he'll be back. He's walking a lot better."
When and if Stojakovic does return, he'll join a Kings team that no doubt has confidence that it can play with and perhaps beat the Lakers in their building. The owners of a league-high 36 regular-season victories at home, the Kings are just 4-3 at home but 4-0 on the road in the playoffs.
"We've played well on the road," Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said. "We've got our work cut out for us."


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