Kings 96, Hornets 79

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—Ron Artest really did predict the future. The Sacramento Kings are headed to the playoffs, just as he guaranteed back in January—and now Artest won’t be satisfied unless this unlikely trip lasts into the second round.

Mike Bibby hit five 3-pointers while scoring 23 points, and the Kings celebrated their eighth consecutive playoff berth with a 96-79 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday night.

Bonzi Wells scored 16 points in three quarters for the Kings, who got their eighth win in 10 games to surge into the postseason. Sacramento’s playoff spot was clinched midway through the fourth quarter when ninth-place Utah lost 111-95 at Dallas, but the Kings still finished strong in their 10th straight victory over the Hornets at Arco Arena since 1997.

Artest transformed the Kings’ season when he arrived in a trade with Indiana for Peja Stojakovic, the last holdover from Sacramento’s first playoff berth in the streak back in 1999. Bibby and coach Rick Adelman also deserve plenty of credit for Sacramento’s surprising turnaround.

“It’s gratifying to come from where we were, especially the last three weeks,” Adelman said. “We got back into this thing, and that’s a real accomplishment. On Jan. 30, we were behind about six teams that didn’t make it. … This is the fun part. It’s a new season, and anything can happen.”

Shortly after Artest arrived in town with a tarnished reputation and near-boundless energy from sitting out most of the last 1 1/2 seasons, he brashly guaranteed a playoff berth for his new 18-24 club. Then he led the Kings back from mediocrity with superb play on both ends, culminating in this last surge to the postseason.

Or maybe this isn’t the culmination. Two weeks ago, Artest guaranteed the Kings would reach the second round—and though Artest makes predictions with all the caution of a boxing promoter, he insists he’s serious.

“We’re not finished,” he said. “We’ve got a long season ahead of us. We’re far from done. Our goal is to come out of this year No. 1, and win a championship.”

Although this game loomed on the schedule for weeks as a potential playoff decider, Sacramento already squelched the Hornets’ slim postseason hopes with a 100-82 victory at Denver on Saturday night.

The Kings (43-38), who have won 17 of their last 20 home games, can finish seventh in the West only if they beat Seattle on Tuesday night and the Hornets upset the Lakers (44-37) on Wednesday. If not, Sacramento likely will open the postseason in San Antonio against the defending NBA champions.

Sacramento never trailed after the opening minute, opening a 21-point lead in the second quarter with several steady surges. Bibby scored 10 points in the third, and both clubs’ reserves finished up most of the fourth.

Artest had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists while shooting more judiciously with his injured right thumb heavily wrapped. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, finally headed to the playoffs in his 10th NBA season, had eight points.

Rookie Chris Paul had 12 points and seven assists for the disheartened Hornets, who lost for the fourth time in five games. Coach Byron Scott held out guard Speedy Claxton and played his entire roster in the first half, clearly keeping everyone fresh in the opener of a season-ending three-game road trip.

“Coach told us before the game that he was going to (play) some guys that haven’t been playing, and that was the way we’re going to finish the year off,” said David West, who had 10 points in less than 16 minutes.

Before the game, Scott expressed admiration for Adelman, his boss during two seasons as an assistant in Sacramento. The Kings’ streak of five straight 50-win seasons ended during a year of wholesale change, but Adelman still coaxed a second-half surge out of his roster.

“He’s done a terrific job,” said Scott, a candidate for the NBA’s coach of the year award. “All the criticism he’s taken has been unfair. All the changes they’ve had here, the trades, the turmoil … it’s a different team, but he’s still winning. He’s done a terrific job.”

After just two playoff appearances in their first 13 years in Sacramento, the Kings haven’t missed the playoffs since Adelman took over the club in 1998, winning two Pacific Division titles and falling one game short of the NBA Finals in 2002.

Only San Antonio and Indiana have longer postseason streaks, at nine seasons apiece.

Notes

Kenny Thomas had six rebounds in the first quarter—as many as the entire New Orleans roster. He finished with nine. … Sacramento and New Orleans split their four-game season series, which included the Kings’ humiliating 93-67 loss in Oklahoma City in the season opener. … Michael Dickerson, Bibby’s former teammate at Arizona and with the Grizzlies, attended the game.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 New Orl/OKC
C. Paul C. Paul
5-8,  12 Pts
1 Rebs, 7 Assists
 Sacramento
R. Artest R. Artest
5-11,  13 Pts
6 Rebs, 6 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists