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With perfect late-season run, Sacramento reigns in West

By Greg Beacham The Associated Press
Tuesday April 09, 2002

SACRAMENTO — The Sacramento Kings’ penchant for the dramatic apparently doesn’t extend beyond the court. They’ve taken much of the excitement out of the final days of the NBA’s regular season. 

With two weeks of perfect play, the Kings have roared past the champion Los Angeles Lakers and the rest of the league, all but wrapping up the NBA’s best record and their first Pacific Division title since moving to Northern California. 

Eight straight victories, including a perfect six-game road trip, have confirmed that the high-flying Kings (57-19) are more than entertaining: they’re legitimate contenders to the Lakers’ throne. 

“We expected to be in this position, but it’s pretty amazing when you finally get there,” said guard Bobby Jackson, a top candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man award. “We’ve just been playing extremely well. Every time we go out, we expect to come away with another win.” 

After the Lakers’ gritty 97-96 victory at Arco Arena on March 24, Sacramento led L.A. by a half-game. Both teams expected a prolonged fight for the division crown, with a season-ending April 17 rematch at Staples Center possibly deciding it. 

But with a 116-82 drubbing of New York on Sunday night, the Kings stretched that lead to 3 1/2 games and reduced their magic number to three for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. With Shaquille O’Neal out of the lineup, the Lakers lost to the Celtics and the Nets last week. 

With just six games to play — all in California, and two against moribund Golden State — the Kings are likely to render that upcoming showdown with the champs all but meaningless except as a preview of a likely postseason meeting. 

“We’re playing well now, and I’m just going to go with this,” coach Rick Adelman said. “We’re playing with a lot of focus. This team has had a mission. When we went on that road trip, we wanted to establish ourselves. Now, we keep telling them that we’re in a position to do something special.” 

Franchise records for team excellence are falling almost daily in Sacramento. The Kings have more victories (57), home victories (34) and road victories (23) than any team in the franchise’s 54-year history. 

What’s more, the Kings are doing it with large doses of their famed style. The Knicks were in awe — and down by 43 points early in the third quarter — after Sacramento’s display of passing, shooting and flair. 

“We came into a place where we were meeting the No. 1 team,” Knicks guard Allan Houston said. “You have to play the perfect game.” 

Indeed, the Kings are nearly unbeatable (34-4) at home. Indiana was the only Eastern Conference team to win in Sacramento this season, and Dallas — which visits Arco Arena on Sunday — is the only other team that hasn’t succumbed in front of the Kings’ frenzied fans. 

“We expect to win now,” said Chris Webber, whose play has steadily improved despite constant questions about his collegiate involvement with a Michigan booster now under federal indictment for allegedly giving money to players. 

“This team comes into games expecting to win and be successful. We’ve matured a lot. We’re getting that feel and that confidence back.” 

The Kings still don’t know how they’ll avoid the fate of last spring’s regular-season champion, however. San Antonio was a league-best 58-24, but the Spurs were swept out of the Western Conference finals by the Lakers, just as the Kings were in the previous round. 

Sacramento might win the regular season, but nobody at Arco Arena — where the smell of the Kings’ mediocre history is fast disappearing — is taking any of this spectacular success for granted. 

“We’ve just got six games left,” Adelman said. “We’ve just got to win three of them, and we don’t have to worry about anybody else.”