KINGS PUSH LAKERS AGAIN L.A. BEATS SACRAMENTO, PLAYOFF SERIES COULD BE BIG CHALLENGE LAKERS 121, SACRAMENTO 114.
At some later date, perhaps in another week or so, the wisdom of the Lakers' strategy Friday night might be called into question. They willfully, deliberately, beat the Sacramento Kings - and in doing so, might have set themselves up for a positively exhausting first-round playoff series.
With a 121-114 victory at Staples Center, the Lakers prevented the seventh-seeded Kings from gaining a game on the eighth-seeded Seattle SuperSonics, who earlier lost to Dallas. Whoever finishes eighth gets a first-round meeting with the Lakers.
So if it's the Kings, the Lakers will have only themselves to blame for orchestrating the matchup with their toughest possible first-round opponent.
``They're never an easy team for us,'' said Glen Rice after the Lakers overcame a 15-point deficit to get the win. ``They've got a lot of weapons on their team. They've got big guys that can run the floor very well. I just think that if we can ever come out and put a first quarter together like we know we're capable of doing, we can put this team away early.''
Though the Lakers won the season series 3-1, they often seem incapable of putting the Kings away at all.
Friday's game was just another testament to that, as Chris Webber ran wild for 36 points and 10 rebounds, joined in the attack by Nick Anderson (22 points) and Peja Stojakovic (20 points).
It took a monstrous, 41-point night from Shaquille O'Neal to avoid a deflating loss. O'Neal, playing his first game in more than a week after resting a sprained ankle, made 16 of 29 field goals and 9 of 15 free throws to go with 16 rebounds.
He showed few signs of rust and only looked tired late in his 45-minute run.
Kobe Bryant added 31 points and Rice had his second straight big game - 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
``We did some good things,'' said coach Phil Jackson, who has called the Kings a ``befuddling'' team for the Lakers. ``I don't know if we learned enough about this team to feel like we're confident that we can master what it takes to win a series or not. I think the players feel confident, but I don't.''
``We showed the effects of being off two days and not having practice,'' Jackson added.
The Lakers trailed for almost the entire first half and by seven points at halftime but used a 37-point third quarter to take the game back. Rice hit 6 of 7 shots in the quarter and 3 of 4 from 3-point range, for 15 points, and Bryant added 14, also on 6 of 7 shooting.
But they couldn't put the Kings away, even after taking a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Stojakovic and Webber led the charge as the Kings cut the lead to 111-108 with 3:24 remaining.
But Bryant hit a pair of free throws and a fadeaway jumper that bounced up and in as the Lakers pulled away again. Rice and Bryant combined for six free throws down the stretch to put it away. The Lakers, who already had clinched the league's best record, improved to 65-13, with three games left to play.
By next weekend, like it or not, they could be welcoming the Kings back to L.A.
``They just play a loosey-goosey style,'' O'Neal said. ``They hit a lot of shots, draw and kick, and they always come out to a fast start. But we always find a way to get back into the game.''
Having weathered Bryant's one-game suspension, Harper's one-game rest and O'Neal's two-game respite, the Lakers trotted out their regular starting five for the first time in five games. But they nevertheless fell to a 65-57 halftime deficit.
The Kings made 58.7 percent of their shots in possibly the worst defensive half of the season for the Lakers. The 65 points scored by the Kings was one point shy of the most allowed by the Lakers in a half this season. Sacramento's 39-point first quarter was the most scored by a Laker opponent in any quarter this season.
``We showed the effects of being off two days and not having practice,'' said Jackson. ``I thought our third quarter, we redeemed ourselves.''
Photo: (color) Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers peers around Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings while trying to figure out just what to do with the basketball. O'Neal had 41 points as the Lakers beat the Kings, 121-114.
Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
Chart: GAME RECAP