SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Before the Sacramento Kings' first practice for the Western Conference finals on Thursday, vice president Geoff Petrie had a message for the team he built expressly for the challenge of the coming days.
Petrie addresses the Kings only a handful of times each season, and he kept these remarks brief. He spoke of respect for the Los Angeles Lakers - and his belief in the Kings' ability to shock them.
"The word Geoff used was that the integrity of their competitiveness is already proven, because they've won two championships," forward Chris Webber said. "We have to prove that we're on their level."
There's much more on the line than California bragging rights when the Lakers face the Kings on Saturday in Game 1 of the tantalizing best-of-seven series that many think will decide the league title. The fate of a dynasty hinges on the Kings' success in countering the Lakers' unrivaled star power with their own consummate team play.
Sacramento, the NBA's top regular-season team and the West's top seed, has been the biggest obstacle to a third straight title banner at Staples Center ever since Petrie's creation jumped to an early season lead in the Pacific Division, then held off the Lakers for Sacramento's first division title.
While preparing for the biggest series of their careers, the Kings have said all the proper, deferential things about the Lakers - well, except Webber's tongue-in-cheek dismissal of trash-talking Lakers benchwarmer Samaki Walker on Thursday.
The Kings have plenty of respect for the champs, but Sacramento also wants to believe that four years of growth, setbacks and incremental improvement will be good enough to beat the best team in basketball.
In two completely different series victories over Utah and Dallas, the Kings also have shown a newfound tenacity after losing to the Lakers the past two postseasons. They've also added versatile point guard Mike Bibby, who has been a remarkable force in his first trip to the playoffs.
But it won't matter if the Lakers' mystique and confidence - and their superstar tandem of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - turn back the clock to the past two seasons.
In 2000, the Lakers got a tough five-game victory over Sacramento in the first round; last season, it was a powerful sweep in the second round, punctuated by Bryant's 48-point performance at Arco Arena in the clincher.
"Once again, here comes the truth. They can't run from the truth," Los Angeles forward Rick Fox said Thursday. "The truth is what has happened in the past is a characteristic of theirs. They have to change that. If they're to fulfill what they profess they want to accomplish, they have to change.
"You have to fail to know how. They failed, but they failed last round. They haven't failed at this round yet."
The Kings' mental obstacles against the Lakers are nearly as foreboding as the physical ones. The roots of Los Angeles' psychological edges are recent, such as 10 victories in 12 meetings with the Kings since the 2000 playoffs - and practically ancient, such as the Lakers' 12 trips to the conference finals since the Kings' last visit in 1981.
But foremost, there is the Lakers' swagger - the confidence and carriage of two-time champions who firmly believe no team can match their will in May or June.
With 22 victories in their last 24 playoff games, Los Angeles has toyed with the rest of the league while rolling 10 straight series victories - a mind-boggling 22 in all for coach Phil Jackson dating to 1995 with Chicago.
"They're much more poised (than last year)," Jackson said. "They expected themselves to be where they are. That gives us respect for them. It's a good challenge for us."
The Kings put one element in their favor when they edged Los Angeles for the NBA's best regular-season record. That puts the series' first two games and a potential Game 7 in Arco, where the crowd noise could distract the Lakers from their focus.
Not that it's mattered recently: The Lakers have won three of their last four games at Arco, and they've won an NBA-record 11 straight road playoff games.
"I think we're a better team when it's us against the world," O'Neal said. "We're a pretty good road team. We're just going to go up there and play good, solid basketball. We know what's been said. We know what we have to do.
"They wanted us, they got us. We don't go through them, they go through us."
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