The Sacramento Kings were in a critical position heading into Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference semifinals against Dallas.
They were up 2-1 in the series, but they had just lost Peja Stojakovic to an ankle injury. The Mavericks had already proven that they could win in Arco Arena, and the Kings didn’t want to head back home tied in the series, down a starter. A team that had lost in the West semifinals the year before was hoping to advance further in the playoffs this time around, and they needed to get past Dallas to do that.
Sacramento started off the game uncharacteristically slow. After building early leads in the first three games of the series, the Kings were flat to start and fell behind 12-1 early. A flurry to end the period, aided by the Mavericks’ less-than-stellar transition defense, allowed Sacramento to end the first down only 27-25.
The Kings had difficulty scoring in the halfcourt throughout the first half. They were at their best on the break or on broken plays, and the absence of Stojakovic was palpable. They were constantly playing catch up after the rough start, the game a series of runs with Dallas building leads and Sacramento forced to claw back.
Vlade Divac really struggled against Raef LaFrentz, but Chris Webber was outstanding with 22 points and seven rebounds in the first half. Mike Bibby was also a settling force with 13 points and three assists. As an aside, I had forgotten how enjoyable it was to hear P.J. Carlesimo call him “Michael Bibby”.
That game got increasingly physical and emotional in the third quarter, and the home court started to work against the Kings. Webber, who had been the offensive fulcrum for Sacramento, picked up four fouls in the first five minutes of the third quarter — and a technical, to boot — and the Mavericks built a 14-point lead in the period in his absence.
Sacramento only ended the third quarter down seven, though, as Scot Pollard took advantage of his minutes to attack Dirk Nowitzki in the post. Doug Christie helped the Kings turn on the clamps defensively, despite dealing with a sprained ankle from the game before and a hard fall to start the third quarter. The stamina of Christie and Bobby Jackson in this game, when the team was running a 7-man rotation and both Webber and Divac had to sit with foul trouble, cannot be overlooked.
Jackson was a menace in the second half, attacking the glass on both ends and surprising the Mavericks with his defensive rebounding. Once his jumper came back, that allowed the Kings to weather the lack of scoring from their starting frontcourt, especially since Webber fouled out with five minutes left. Hedo Turkoglu’s ability to hold his own defensively and eat minutes was invaluable as well. He only scored four points, but two of those came on a crucial putback with under two minutes to play.
Bibby hit the first of his two clutch shots at the end of the fourth quarter to tie the game, even giving Sacramento an opportunity for a potential 2-for-1. The Kings had been down 12 in the fourth quarter but now simply needed to win a five-minute stretch to take a 3-1 series lead.
Sacramento took the lead to start overtime on a Bibby jumper, but Nowitzki immediately responded by attacking the basket on the other end, hitting two free throws, and fouling Divac out in the process. Finley hit a jumper on the ensuing possession, Pollard came back with two free throws of his own, and the two teams were tied again with 3:12 to play.
What followed was an agonizing three-minute scoreless stretch on both ends. The Kings’ eight-man rotation had been decimated; they had no option but to close the game with Bibby, Jackson, Christie, Turkoglu, and Pollard. It was a defense-heavy lineup without a lot of shot creation, and some of the offensive possessions stalled early, but they kept getting second chances by fighting for offensive rebounds. The Mavericks weren’t much deeper, but they had a little bit more on the bench, and at home, they had to be considered favorites if the game went any longer.
The Kings got the ball back with 30 seconds left, gave it to Bibby on the baseline, and let him work the clock. He blew past Michael Finley and finally ended the drought.
Nowitzki’s runner on the next play hit all kinds of rim before bouncing out, and the Kings held on. Game 5 would essentially be a coronation before the Western Conference Finals.
Interestingly enough, Sacramento would face Dallas again in the conference semifinals the following season, with Game 4 taking place on May 11. The Kings were down 2-1 in that series and gamely held serve at home despite having lost Webber for the rest of the postseason. The series ended differently, but it was another testament to Sacramento’s resilience, something that shined through on this day 18 years ago.