When Doug Christie was a Lakers rookie, in 1992, Jerry West, the team's general manager at the time, took him aside. "He said that if I was willing to work at it, I could do some very important things with my defense for the Lakers," Christie says. Nine years later the 6'6" Christie, now the Kings' shooting guard, is trying to do some very important things with his defense to the Lakers. His job in Sacramento's second-round playoff series against L.A. is to shadow Kobe Bryant—a typical assignment for Christie, who routinely draws the opponents' top perimeter scorer and has handled that duty so well that he was named to the NBA's All-Defensive second team.
Christie's defense was essential to the Kings' first-round elimination of the Suns in four games. He helped limit Phoenix point guard Jason Kidd to 14.3 points on 31.9% shooting and made two crucial defensive plays, blocking a Kidd layup in the final minutes of Game 3 and stealing a pass and going in for the dunk that sealed Game 4. Christie's regular-season average of 2.26 steals was third best in the league. "He's been great all year locking up point guards, big guards, small forwards," Sacramento forward Chris Webber said before Game 1 in Los Angeles. "If he can make Kobe work hard for whatever he gets, we'll be all right."
It didn't quite turn out that way on Sunday. Christie did a good job on the 6'7" Bryant in the first half, when he harassed Bryant into 3-of-11 shooting, but Kobe broke free for 17 points in the third quarter, and the Lakers, behind Shaquille O'Neal's 44 points, eked out a 108-105 win. "Doug's All-Defense for a reason," said Bryant, who finished with 29 points on 10-of-23 shooting. "He's got long arms, and he knows how to use them."
One key to Christie's defensive work is his ability to contest shots. He rarely goes for the block, preferring to put his hand as close to the shooter's eyes as he can. On several of Bryant's fadeaway jumpers on Sunday, Christie looked as if he was trying to place his outstretched fingers on Kobe's corneas. When he couldn't get close enough to do that, he came up with other creative ways of distracting the Lakers' guard. On Bryant's first shot of the game, Christie clapped his hands on the release, and Bryant shot an air ball. "You do whatever you can to make it as hard on him as possible," Christie says.
What with the risk of pulling a muscle while removing one's warmups, it can be argued that playing only the last 4.5 seconds of a three-game playoff series is worse than not playing at all. Alvin Williams knows that all too well. Last season he rode the pine for the first 143 minutes and 55.5 seconds of the Knicks' first-round sweep of the Raptors before Toronto coach Butch Carter saw fit to let him play. Williams's short stint could hardly be called mop-up time, because he barely had time to get his mop wet. It was, however, a fitting end to a season in which he was made to feel unwanted in two countries. The Raptors had traded him to the Celtics for forward Danny Fortson on Feb. 9, but Boston got skittish the next day and nixed the deal, claiming Williams had a bad knee—despite the fact that he'd missed only one game due to injury all year, because of a sprained ankle.
Carter was fired after the season, and when former Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens interviewed for the job with Toronto general manager Glen Grunwald, the man who had made a name for himself as a gritty guard had an interesting message for his future boss. "I saw Alvin play in college [at Villanova], and I thought, This kid is tough," says Wilkens. "When Glen and I talked, I said, 'I'm interested [in the job], but we're keeping Alvin.' " Grunwald said fine, and when Wilkens signed on, the first player he called was Williams.
Wilkens used the 6'5" Williams extensively at both guard spots throughout the regular season, and the fourth-year man excelled. He averaged 9.8 points, his assists-to-turnovers ratio was nearly four to one, and he had 20 more steals than turnovers. Williams's postseason play has been even better: He scored 15 or more points in five of Toronto's first six playoff games, and the Philly native hounded his summer workout partner, Allen Iverson, into 11-for-34 shooting in a 96-93 defeat of the 76ers on Sunday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Williams, 26, has improved his shooting touch since last season, but for the most part his ascent is due to one thing: the guidance of Wilkens. "He's showed me a lot of little things," Williams says. "How to let the game come to me, how to be patient, how to feed off of other players, when to attack, when not to attack. But the biggest thing was just giving me the opportunity to play."