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Kings Get the Kings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Antonio Spurs were barely out of the Western Conference semifinals, and not nearly out of the building yet, when conversations in the hallways of Staples Center found their ways to the Sacramento Kings.

The Lakers finished the Spurs, 93-87, on Tuesday night, their 10-4 run to end the game the presumed method even before it began. The best-of-seven series was done in five games because the Lakers carried every fourth quarter, finally with their series-high 31 points in the last period.

Kobe Bryant scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and Shaquille O’Neal had 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Rick Fox had 17 points and seven assists.

Tim Duncan had 34 points and a career playoff-high 25 rebounds for the Spurs, overrun at the end by the twice-defending NBA champion Lakers, who shot terribly for three quarters before shooting 57% in the fourth.

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So the Lakers renew the defense of those championships with the Kings in the conference finals, beginning Saturday in Sacramento. They beat the Kings in the first round two years ago and the second last year, and three times in four regular-season meetings this year.

“We are the underdogs because we are starting out this series on the road,” Laker Coach Phil Jackson said. “They are a very competitive team against us.”

Yet it is the Lakers who play beneath banners, who have won 10 consecutive playoff series and 23 of 25 playoff games and 11 in a row on the road.

The Kings, who vanquished the Utah Jazz in the first round and the Dallas Mavericks, against many predictions, in the second, won home-court advantage with 61 regular-season wins and the Pacific Division championship.

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After Tuesday’s game, a sheet of paper was taped to O’Neal’s locker. On it, there was a photograph of King center Vlade Divac and a midseason quote from Divac, “If [the Lakers] don’t have home-court advantage this year, they’re not going to win it.”

Divac’s assignment in the coming series will be O’Neal.

“I hear and see everything,” O’Neal said. “I’m the po-lice.”

O’Neal said he did not know who affixed the quote to his locker. Fox thought O’Neal himself had done it. Bryant shrugged.

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“I didn’t see it,” Fox said. “But I suspect it. He’s been talking about it for a while.”

Bryant chuckled, because he knows how O’Neal gets about these things.

“Shaquille, he feeds off motivation like that,” Bryant said. “That gets him charged up.”

That would be good for the Lakers, not so much for the Kings. O’Neal has played the first two series with various ankle and toe injuries, along with the stitches in his shooting index finger. The Spurs crowded him and shoved him, so other Lakers, Bryant in particular, were more assertive on offense.

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The Kings would demand a better offensive effort from the Lakers, who didn’t score 100 points in the series, and have done so only once in eight postseason games. The Kings went for at least 102 five times in five games against the Dallas Mavericks.

“We’ll be the underdogs and that is fine,” Bryant said. “We are comfortable with that. Going to Sacramento is a tough task. They are in a place they’ve never been before, and that’s the Western Conference finals. They are going to be pumped up, they are going to play their best. They are a very emotional ballclub and we have to be ready for that.”

Then Bryant rethought his premise.

“I never feel like an underdog,” he said.

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A night after they cried “Beat L.A.” in Sacramento, they shouted “Three-peat” in Los Angeles. At the end of the Spurs’ season, and with all of Sacramento watching, the Lakers took an 83-83 game to 90-83, on a Bryant layup, a Fox layup, and a Robert Horry three-pointer, from the right corner, with 58 seconds remaining.

“The Lakers played like champions in the last four or five minutes of every game we played,” Spur Coach Gregg Popovich said. “The Lakers got it done. Kobe was great again down the stretch.”

Duncan, played straight-up for much of the game again, scored 12 points in the second half, but needed 12 shots for them. He missed eight. The Spurs led by as many as 10 points in the third quarter, but gradually lost the lead, and then the series, as the Lakers stayed in their clutch character.

“We still didn’t get it done,” Malik Rose said. “We scored down the stretch, I guess, but we didn’t stop anybody.”

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Now the style changes, from the grind-it-out Spurs to the wildly up-tempo Kings.

“It’s going to be tough,” Horry said. “Sacramento is playing really well right now. They have the best team in basketball, so we’ve got to get ourselves together and try to get a win.

“We’re beat up and buried, but we’re going to go in there and try to quiet the crowd and play hard.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* It Was a Struggle The Lakers won their Western Conference semifinal series against San Antonio in five games, but were not impressive in doing so. A comparison of key statistics of this season’s playoff series with the Spurs and last season’s, which the Lakers won in four games: 2001 2002 Avg. Point Dif +22.3 +4.2 Pct. of Time Ahead* 73.4% 22.8% Biggest Lead 39 11 Field Goal Pct 47.1% 44% Three-Point Pct 44.4% 33.8% Avg. Reb. Dif +14.3 +4.2 Avg. Off. Reb. Dif +5.8 0 * The Lakers led last season’s series for approximately 141 of a possible 192 minutes. This year, they led for 54:38 of a possible 240 minutes

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