SAN ANTONIO - Those mood swings inside Arco Arena these days are dramatic, to say the least.
But there was something very different going on Sunday night. For the first time in three postseasons, I started to sense that Kings fans actually believe their team has a chance to play the role of the upstart, of the underachiever, instead of the annual victim. Was it when Ron Artest chased down his own errant shot and scored just before intermission? When Brad Miller caught a pass and, without hesitation, stroked a jumper from the left side in the third period? During that sequence when Bonzi Wells powered into the lane for that rebound basket that prompted the spontaneous chanting from the crowd? Whenever it was, it had seeped into the air, something akin to a verbal swagger.
Given the club’s history, even the most faithful Kings fan had myriad reasons to be skeptical. Robert Horry ring a cowbell? Remember how the Kings squandered a double-digit lead while Vlade Divac twitched on the bench during
the Game 3 overtime loss to the Dallas Mavs in 2003. That Chris Webber debate in 2004 (should he start or sub?). The uninspiring performance in
last year’s brief series with the Seattle Sonics? Those first two losses in San Antonio seemed to feed right into Sacramento’s annual swan song: There they go again.
But the tenor of Sunday’s convincing victory was a complete shocker. The smart money was on the Spurs. How dumb was that? Ron Artest and Bonzi Wells are providing that mental and physical toughness that has been lacking since Bobby Jackson’s early, healthier days, and their size, strength and relentlessness are continuing to cause matchup problems. The Spurs also
are having little success attacking the interior - once an infamous Sacramento soft spot - and at least partly because of Tim Duncan’s foot problem, the Kings have become increasingly selective about their double-teams, no longer automatically running at Duncan and leaving themselves vulnerable from the perimeter. Manu Ginobili just looks lost, stunned by his inability to create much of anything with Artest forever hugging his hip.
I don’t envy Gregg Popovich right now. The Spurs’ coach is probably poring over psychology books as we speak. The world champs don’t want to become one of the few No.1 seeds ousted by No. 8, especially a team that scrambled to
make the playoffs. So I’ll stick with my original prediction - Spurs in six. I still think there is too much talent, versatility, experience and coaching, along with the homecourt advantage, for a San Antonio collapse. But it’s a shaky prediction. The Kings are showing me something. The Kings are hanging tough.