SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—If you believed Kobe Bryant, the Sacramento Kings played the best defense he’s ever seen. If you believed Shaquille O’Neal, the referees were completely responsible for the Kings’ biggest win of the season.
And if you believed your eyes, the Kings’ 102-85 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday was baffling—both because of Sacramento’s abrupt turnaround and Bryant’s bizarre one-shot performance in the first half.
Chris Webber had 25 points and 12 rebounds, Doug Christie added 21 points to his superb defense and the Kings halted their late-season skid with a dominant outing against their archrivals. Sacramento needs just one more win or one Lakers loss to clinch its third straight Pacific Division title and the playoffs’ second seed.
“Statement? We’ve been together for so long that we don’t need statements,” Webber said.
Mike Bibby had 15 points and eight assists for Sacramento (55-25), which took a one-game lead over the Lakers (54-26) with two to play by winning for just the fourth time in 10 games. The Kings played with more desperation and passion than they’ve shown in the seven weeks since Webber’s comeback from knee surgery.
But even in a defeat that probably relegated them to the fourth seed, the Lakers still stole the spotlight with another unique controversy.
Bryant, the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer, took just one shot while playing 21 minutes in the first half. He passed up open looks, allowed Christie to bully him and didn’t play his usual aggressive game until the third quarter, when the Lakers were 21 points behind.
After finishing with eight points on 3-of-13 shooting, Bryant insisted he wasn’t avoiding shots—even though that seemed obvious to everybody else at Arco Arena. His lone first-half shot was a missed 3-pointer when the shot clock was winding down midway through the second quarter.
He did another strange thing afterward: He praised the Kings’ defense, which has been among the NBA’s worst this season.
“They doubled me every time I touched the ball,” said Bryant, who scored at least 34 points in each of his last five games against Sacramento. “So I just moved the ball, waiting for the game to kind of open up. I’ve done that before when teams have doubled me.
“They did a great job. They played very well. (Kings coach Rick) Adelman had an excellent game plan for them. If we see them again, we’ll figure out what to do to counterattack them.”
Bryant’s reticence might have been a response to coach Phil Jackson’s recent criticism of the superstar’s game. Jackson said the Lakers frequently suffer when Bryant concentrates solely on driving and scoring. Jackson wasn’t making any guesses, refusing to take reporters’ questions after the game.
“I’ve never seen Kobe take just (one shot),” Payton said. “I don’t think any of us came to play, and this is the outcome that happened.”
O’Neal also got just one shot in the first half, but he played just 12 minutes after two early offensive fouls. He finished with 10 points and five rebounds—but he saved his best performance for the locker room, where he ripped the Kings as “underachievers,” castigated the officials and again cursed on live television.
“We let (the referees) take us out of our game, but I’m still not impressed,” O’Neal said. “I think today it was a little bit obvious that (the referees) tried to take over the game. They changed the game. I wanted to come in here, play real hard, get that big guy in foul trouble, make them play defense.
“It’s obvious they’re never going to play defense when all they have to do is foul. … Not impressed, not impressed. Not (expletive) impressed, you know what I mean?”
Shaq got a one-game suspension in February for cursing the referees during an on-court postgame interview.
Only the Los Angeles carnival could overshadow such a dramatic reversal by the Kings, who surged ahead by 21 points in the first half. In contrast to their performances in most recent games, they never gave away the lead, keeping a double-digit margin throughout the second half.
“I can’t really take credit for the defense on Kobe,” Christie said. “First of all, it was a great game plan from the coaches. Then, guys were helping me when he was putting the ball on the floor. … He’s a smart player. I was thinking he would pick his time to start shooting, but the guys stayedwith me.”
Peja Stojakovic scored just 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, endangering his second-place standing in the NBA scoring race. … Bryant got his first point on a jumper with 3:53 left in the third quarter. He also missed his final seven shots. … Sacramento is one game behind Minnesota for the conference’stop spot, but the Timberwolves have the tiebreaker.