- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. The sheepish smile that Chris Webber perfected in less happy times with the Washington Wizards is not as forced as it once was. But Webber still knows how to cut it loose for dramatic purposes.

Take late Tuesday night, for instance, not long after Webber's Sacramento Kings pushed the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers within one game of elimination in the Western Conference finals thanks to a big-time shot by emerging superstar guard Mike Bibby.

"I still think we're the underdogs," Webber said, the smile almost as bright as the massive diamond dangling from his ear. "They're still the champions. Nothing's changed. Nothing."

Webber is right to take this approach in a series where neither team has won back-to-back games. If this holds true tomorrow, when the series moves to Los Angeles for Game 6, the stage will be set for Game 7 here Sunday afternoon.

But while they don't like to pat themselves on the back publicly, it is clear that the Kings have developed a certain confidence against Los Angeles that no other team has demonstrated during the Lakers' two-year reign as rulers of the NBA.

The Kings built leads of 27 and 24 points in two Memorial Day weekend games against the Lakers but walked away with just one victory at Staples Center. The Kings know that this series barring a miracle shot by Robert Horry should be over.

"One thing we've learned is that you can't look back at games you've just played and wonder, 'I wonder if ' You can't do that. We had our opportunities," Webber said. "We could be looking back on this series like that. But the key thing for us to do is to just stay focused on playing the next game."

However, forgetting the Game 5 victory won't be that easy. Many had thought the Kings, who last appeared in the Finals 51 years ago when the team was located in Rochester N.Y., would collapse after Horry's last-ditch shot Sunday evened the series at 2-2.

But with center Vlade Divac leading the chorus, the Kings to a man insisted that Horry's shot was pure luck. They acknowledged that they had let the game slip away and promised to come back ready for anything the Lakers had to throw at them.

And as they took control of the series, it was Bibby who pushed the Lakers to where they are now. Taking a pass from Webber and then running his helpless defender, Derek Fisher, off a screen, Bibby sank Tuesday's game-winning jumper with 8.2 seconds left.

With center Shaquille O'Neal out after picking up his sixth foul with 3:22 left, the Lakers turned to Kobe Bryant, who missed a shot with time running out.

But rather than attract any more attention, Bibby, who had dismantled Utah's John Stockton and Dallas' Steve Nash in previous series, said it was a shot he would have felt comfortable having any of his teammates take.

"I think there are a lot of people on this team who could have made that last shot," Bibby said of the 22-footer. "I was just happy to be the one that hit it."

Asked later if he was upset that he was the player asked to set the screen rather than attempt the game-winner, Webber's response demonstrated just how much he has grown as a player.

"I don't care," Webber said. "I don't. You [reporters] can dog me the rest of my life. I don't care. Coach [Rick Adelman] could have put on a uniform and hit that shot and I wouldn't care."

The Lakers could take some solace in the fact that they still had a chance at winning the game until the final seconds, even with O'Neal on the bench. But rather than exhibiting the sense of urgency that is commensurate with their predicament, some of the Lakers spoke as if they had control of the series.

"The way I look at it, everything's on par," said Rick Fox. "If things go the way they're supposed to go, we'll be back here for a seventh game."


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