Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Kings rivalry the least of the LA Lakers' problems

By KEVIN MODESTI  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Kobe Bryant, left, of the Lakers, goes after a loose ball Chris Webber of the Kings looks on at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

There was a knee to the head, Anthony Peeler's knee, Derek Fisher's head. There was a bloody brow, Slava Medvedenko's. There were hard fouls, hard stares, hard feelings.

Yes, it was Lakers-Kings again, and the Staples Center crowd was in a howling frenzy from the moment LA's big-game national-anthem singer Jeffrey Osborne warbled his last note.

But you know what the Lakers-Kings rivalry really means in the grand scheme of things, when you sit down to measure the meaning of the home team's 115-91 victory behind 36 points from time-zone-hopping Kobe Bryant Wednesday night?

Zero. Zippo. Zilch. Nada. Slightly less than Mike Bibby's shooting percentage (4 for 16).

If this stem-to-stern rout of the leaders of the NBA's Western Conference was significant, it wasn't because this was a test of how the Lakers and the Kings stack up going into the playoffs. This one was all about the Lakers and how they stack up going into the playoffs. This one was all about where the Lakers are in the standings, where the Lakers' game is, where the Lakers' heads are.

"It's a key game in a season," Phil Jackson said before tipoff.

The California rivals seem to always play a much-hyped game at this time of the season, and until now it always was the Kings' fragile psyches that were on trial.

Two years ago, March 24, a Sunday afternoon in Sacramento, the Lakers won 97-96 when Chris Webber missed a 10-footer from the right baseline at the buzzer. Webber sank to his knees and pounded the floor in frustration. Then he told reporters the game wasn't particularly meaningful. Of course it was meaningful, bruising the Kings' home-court confidence. In the playoffs, the Lakers won conference-final Game 7 at Arco Arena on the way to the title.

Last year, March 20, a Thursday night in Sacramento, the Kings won 107-99 when the Lakers gave up 41 points in the fourth quarter. Jackson ripped the winners, which he spelled differently: "They whined the whole game long ... They obviously are carrying something inside that says they have to have the referees to win the game or something."

See? These games were always about the Kings' heads, whether the cow-towners could shake their inferiority complex.

The Lakers were playing the rival Kings on Wednesday but they could have been playing Minnesota, San Antonio, Dallas or Memphis and the blowout win would have meant just as much.

Third in the Western Conference when the night began, 3 games behind Sacramento and 2 behind Minnesota, the Lakers needed a sharp start to a 12-game stretch run that will fill in the "who" and "where" of their opening playoff round.

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