The Los Angeles Lakers/Sacramento Kings matchup in the early 2000s was one of the better rivalries in the past 20 years. Both teams had fantastic players, they played some amazing games and year after year they met in the playoffs.
And while the Lakers came out on top in every playoff series they squared off in, any Lakers fan that can't admit the Kings were a great team is likely holding on to some bad feelings from those games and is being spiteful.
No, those Kings teams were excellent, and the fact that the Lakers were able to beat them in the playoffs (especially in the famed 2002 Western Conference Finals) speaks to how good the Lakers were (with some luck thrown in), rather than any indictment of the Kings not being a good enough team to win.
The bounces (as well as some calls) just went the Lakers way in that series and they ended up on top. It happens.
But that rivalry was about more than just the wins and losses—after all, if we only cared about that, this wouldn't be a rivalry at all. This rivalry was about all the moments that made the matchup must watch TV. It was about the magical performances from both teams, the individual brilliance of the players, and how intense competition led to some of the most memorable moments of an era.
And while every person will have their own memories about those two teams, the games they played, and the bad blood between them, what follows are the ones that I'll remember most. Without further ado, let's get to them...
It seems strange that one of the most memorable things that Shaquille O'Neal did in the midst of the Lakers/Kings rivalry was off the court, but that's the case.
Sure, I could spout off some of the great games Shaq had against the Kings. The big game performances that helped the Lakers clinch playoff series and advance to the Finals. Yes, those moments are seared in my memory and I could recite them like they were yesterday.
But, to be honest, what I remember most about Shaq from this period were the gems he dropped in interviews when discussing his rivals. Most notably, when he called them the Sacramento Queens:
We're not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Not at all. I'm not gonna be doing this all year, going back and forth with them. Nobody cares that we won last year, this is a new year, so we just need to focus on a new year. Like I said, I'm not worried about the Sacramento Queens. Write it down, take a picture, send it to them. I don't care.
Was this the most mature thing? No. Was it even a bit misogynistic? It sure was. But it also represents the utter disdain Shaq, and the Lakers, had for the Kings during this period.
We have to remember that by the time this quote was handed out, the Lakers and Kings had met so many times over the years that there really was bad blood. The Lakers were tired of hearing about how this would be the Kings year and whether or not the Kings would get over the hump and take out the reigning champs.
So, Shaq spoke his mind (as he was known to do) and handed out an insult that lives on in infamy. More than any basket Shaq scored in all those games, this is probably what I remember most about him. Go figure.
While Shaq showed his dislike of the Kings with his words (and some physical play in the post), Rick Fox and Doug Christie weren't going to settle for simply talking trash. No, these two decided that the best way to get out their aggression was to actually have a fight.
And in a preseason game, no less.
For the Lakers and Kings, being in-state rivals who often play each other in the preseason allowed them to see even more game action than most rivals would. And in October of 2002, after the Lakers had dispatched the Kings in the Western Conference Finals the season before, these teams squared off in the last game of the preseason.
With the regular season about to start in just a few days, the spirit of the game was high. And with the Kings looking to prove that they were ready to take that next step and dethrone the champions, they were taking this game especially seriously (something the Lakers reciprocated, by the way).
So, with Christie playing Fox closely, Fox pivoted and hit Christie in the face with an elbow, picking up an offensive foul on the process. Christie then got up and confronted Fox which didn't sit well with the Lakers' small forward.
Fox then pushed Christie in the face and Christie responded with a punch to Fox's head with a wrestling match breaking out right after. The refs and teammates had to break it up and the result was both players, deservedly, getting ejected.
If the story ended here, it would be enough to be one of the most memorable moments but, of course, it doesn't.
After both players left the floor to go to their respective locker rooms, they continued their skirmish in the bowels of the arena, slugging it out in the hallway. Security ultimately broke up the fight, but not before both guys got a few more shots in that they couldn't land on the hardwood.
Needless to say, when players are fighting in preseason games, things have gone too far. But this was the nature of the rivalry. These teams simply hated each other.
Game 7s can get the best of even the most gifted of players. This is something that Peja Stojakovic knows all too well.
In the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the Kings were playing at home. They'd just lost a brutal Game 6 on their home floor that saw (what many would call) some suspect officiating that led to a boatload of Lakers free throws (40 in all) that proved to be crucial in getting them the victory.
But Game 7 would be a new game that would offer them a chance to reach the Finals.
For what it's worth, Peja actually had an okay Game 6. He scored 10 points, made four of his eight field goal attempts and seemed to be finding his rhythm coming off the bench. Game 7, though, would be a different story.
In the series deciding game, Peja was, for lack of a better word, terrible. He shot three-for-12 from the field and scored only eight points. Even worse was the fact that the sharp-shooting Serbian missed all six of his three point attempts, proving to be a liability as a floor spacer and allowing the Lakers to crowd the paint against Chris Webber and Vlade Divac.
The worst part of his night, though, wasn't just the misses but the biggest miss of the game—one that he probably still thinks about.
With the Kings trailing by one and less then 20 seconds left, they initiate an offensive set with Mike Bibby (who came up huge for them all night).
Bibby runs a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor but gets bottled up and has to reverse the ball to Chris Webber. Webber passes to Hedo Turkoglu who penetrates from the left wing but gets cut off. Turkoglu sees a wide open Peja in the corner and passes him the ball. Peja, rises up and shoots the shot that could give his team the lead with only ten seconds left in the game.
And he shoots an air-ball.
That's right, one of the best shooters in the league didn't even draw iron. The Lakers came down with the ball, got fouled, and went to the foul line. After that, Mike Bibby would play hero and force overtime with free throws of his own but the Lakers would prevail in the extra frame and go to the Finals in the process.
Who knows what happens if Peja hits that shot. The fact is, however, that he didn't. And I'll never forget watching his jumper sail wide right of the rim and not hit a thing.
In the 2000-01 playoffs, the Lakers were a juggernaut that simply would not be denied. Their 15-1 playoff record was a run for the ages that will never be forgotten.
And, in that run, Kobe Bryant played some of the best basketball of his career against the Kings. Especially in Games 3 and 4, on the road in Arco Arena, to close out the series with a sweep.
The first effort was a 36-point masterpiece in game three where Kobe willed himself to the basket and hit remarkable shot after remarkable shot. With Doug Christie all over him, Kobe found ways to score, earn trips to the foul line (16-19 on the night) and dish out assists (four dimes). Oh, and he also chipped in seven rebounds.
More remarkable, though, was Kobe's night in the Game 4 clincher.
In that contest, Kobe scored an incredible 48 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and handed out three assists. On the evening he only took one three-pointer (that he made) and did most of his work by attacking the basket (17-of-19 from the foul line) and hitting an array of jumpers that had to be seen to believed.
By this point in his career, the legend of Kobe was already being formed. The year before he'd played on a badly sprained ankle and took over an overtime period in the Finals to help the Lakers beat the Pacers. He'd hit plenty of big-time shots and was already earning a reputation as a big-game player that was ruthless on the court.
But these two games pretty much cemented him as the league's best perimeter player at the time. The fact that he did this on the road, in one of the most hostile environments in the league, only made his accomplishments more impressive.
I, for one, will never forget Kobe taking the Kings' hearts out and their looks of total disbelief as he almost single-handedly beat them. He was simply amazing in those two games.
Robert Horry is familiar with hitting big shots. But some shots are just bigger than others.
In Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, Horry hit what was probably the biggest shot of his career (which is saying something) and the biggest shot of the Lakers' season.
The Lakers were down 2-1 in the series to the Kings, and to that point looked like they were finally going to succumb to their rivals from the state capital. The Kings looked like the better team. They were younger and they were hungrier. After being bounced from the playoffs by this Lakers team in back-to-back seasons, who could blame them for wanting this one bad?
And by holding the lead in the series, the Kings were looking to put their foot on the necks of the incumbent champions. One more win would have given them their 3-1 lead and the inside track to the Finals. Even with the Lakers' championship pedigree, it would have been hard to see them winning three straight games (including two on the road). Not against a team as good as the Kings.
The game didn't start well for the Lakers. After the first quarter they trailed by 20. In the second quarter they'd cut into the lead some but still trailed by 14 at the half. In the third quarter the Lakers made another push and cut their deficit to seven, but the Kings still led going into the final quarter.
In that fateful fourth period, the Lakers clawed their way back into the game, but it looked like it may not be enough. No, in the closing seconds they still trailed by two and even though they had the ball, needing a bucket at the end isn't ideal.
After the Lakers took a timeout, they set up a play for Kobe to isolate from the right wing. He took the ball to the rim and pulled up for a half runner that missed long. Shaq, carving out space under the rim grabbed the offensive rebound, but in a rush to get up a shot, he short armed his put back and missed it. At that moment, the Lakers fate looked sealed.
As Shaq's shot fell off the rim, Vlade Divac tapped the ball out to the three-point line as the last seconds were ticking away. The Kings, it seemed, would get their win. Then the camera panned to a wide open Robert Horry waiting for the tapped ball to reach him. Like a perfect bounce pass, the ball went right into his hands and he went up in his shooting motion.
Right after he released the ball, time froze for me. I watched as the ball spun with its perfect backwards rotation. As the ball went towards the hoop, the buzzer sounded and the red light on top of the backboard went off. Slowly, the ball traveled as everything around me was silent. This shot would decide the game.
Then, the ball went through the basket. The Lakers won. Horry, turned and did this celebratory leap but with his arms down to his sides as his teammates mobbed him. The Kings walked off the court dejected, knowing they'd allowed some life to be breathed into their opponent. A 3-1 lead was now a 2-2 tie.
What a difference a shot makes. Robert Horry saved the Lakers' season and I'll never forget it.