Originally created 04/08/04

Kings hoping to shake malaise in upcoming West showdowns

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento Kings are running out of time to turn their stagger back into a swagger.

The Kings lead the Western Conference with five games to play, but they look about as stable as Chris Webber's oft-injured ankles. Even after consecutive victories over Houston and New Orleans, Sacramento has lost four of its last seven - and hasn't won convincingly in nearly a month.

It's hardly the way coach Rick Adelman hoped to hit the home stretch of the regular season, and the Kings' upcoming schedule is merciless. They have four games in the next five days, including home dates against their closest pursuers in the West: Minnesota visits on Thursday, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.

The Kings still believe their struggles are the result of two big changes in early March, when Webber returned from offseason knee surgery and Bobby Jackson left the lineup with an abdominal injury. But five weeks after Webber's return, the Kings still don't look like themselves - and even Webber knows time is running out.

"We're coming along, even if it doesn't look like it sometimes," Webber said. "At this point, it's only about getting ready for the playoffs. This late in the season, everybody on both coasts, in both conferences, feels that way. When it's time to get in there, I think we'll be ready."

The Kings lead Minnesota by a half-game in the conference standings, and they're 1 1/2 games ahead of the Lakers in the Pacific Division race. With San Antonio just two games behind, the West's top four teams all could finish anywhere from first to fourth.

For most of the winter, Sacramento had the inside track on the top playoff seed for the second time in three seasons. Though the Kings have won two straight games to fend off the Timberwolves for now, their struggles against the Hornets on Tuesday night were typical of their problems in recent weeks.

Sacramento built a 26-point lead against a team missing its top three scorers, but the Kings let the lead dwindle to four points with disorganized offense and more of the defensive lapses that existed even when things were going well.

"There's a few times every game where we stop being as aggressive as we should be," said All-Star Brad Miller, who missed three games last week with an elbow injury. "Sometimes it's like we're flipping a switch on and off."

Though there's a general dissatisfaction in the Kings' locker room, nobody has openly criticized his teammates for a lack of effort. That's mostly because Sacramento still is adjusting to Webber's return to his pivotal spot as the focus of the Kings' offense - even if that adjustment is dragging into its second month now.

In fact, many believe Jackson's absence has been even more disruptive than Webber's return, since Jackson spells starting point guard Mike Bibby and provides much of the scoring from Sacramento's second unit. Jackson also plays big minutes and finishes most games, forcing Adelman to use odd substitutions in his absence.

"We're a better team with Bobby out there. That's no secret," Adelman said. "Hopefully he'll be ready to go this week, and we can get everybody together before the playoffs. I've been hoping that for a while now, though."

Through all the Kings' struggles, All-Star Peja Stojakovic is putting the finishing touches on his best season yet. He probably will finish second behind Orlando's Tracy McGrady in the NBA scoring race, and he's headed for his first free-throw shooting title.

His five 3-pointers against the Hornets were a reminder of the Kings' favorite response to any problem over the years: simply shoot their way out of it.

"Hopefully we're starting to get everything fixed," Miller said. "This part of the season is the most fun. You know it, once you've been in the playoffs: Five more games, and you can start to play for fun."


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