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The Sacramento Kings are a finely tuned offensive machine that depends on pick-and-roll precision, share-the-wealth ball distribution and imperturbable decision-making. Their headiness is due in no small part to their point guard Mike Bibby. � The Sacramento Kings are a stir-up-the-stew band of full-court madmen—unpredictable, intense, prone to risk-taking on both offense and defense. Their brashness is due in no small part to their point guard Bobby Jackson. � "When Mike's out there we tend to be in our correct positions on the floor," says backup center Scot Pollard, whose 6'11", 265-pound frame, Fu Manchu mustache and thrift-shop wardrobe stamp him as a card-carrying member of the Jackson-led second unit. "When Bobby's out there, we're kind of running around like chickens with our heads cut off. Mike's the perfect guy to lead the first team, and Bobby's the perfect guy to lead the chickens."
So it is with a certain duality of style that Shaquille O'Neal's favorite team—the Big Instigator has spent much time calling Sacramento "the Queens" or just calling them out in general—marches into the second round of the playoffs against the awfully-glad-to-be-here Dallas Mavericks as, perhaps, the team to beat.
"No, no, the Lakers are still the team to beat," said Sacramento center Vlade Divac last week, after the Kings had dispatched the Utah Jazz in five games. "And if San Antonio beats the Lakers this round, then San Antonio is the team to beat because they beat the Lakers." There is more than a hint of disingenuousness in Divac's disclaimer. Sacramento believes it has been the NBA's best team for the past two seasons and blames its loss to Los Angeles in last year's Western Conference finals on bad calls in Game 6 and an uncharacteristic crisis of confidence in Game 7. A conquest of L.A., which has eliminated the Kings in the playoffs for the last three seasons, is unquestionably on their to-do list. "Beating the Lakers would be the missing piece," admits Divac.
There's no guarantee, of course, that Sacramento will even get that matchup, the Lakers having lost Game 1 of their conference semifinal series with the Spurs 87-82 on Monday night. And in Dallas the Kings face a team that may have found new energy after Sunday's 107-95 Game 7 first-round win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a victory that kept Mark Cuban's minions from becoming the first team in NBA history to lose a series after going up 3-0. The Mavericks can't begin to match Sacramento's strength inside, but they can score with anyone, and in Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel, they have a point guard combination similar to the Kings'.
Make no mistake, though: At this stage of the season Bibby-Bobby is the superior duo. They are an interesting pair, close friends despite their competition for minutes ( Jackson, who last week won the Sixth Man Award, will not admit that Bibby, a member of the U.S. Olympic team, is better) and the difference in their ages ( Bibby is 24, Jackson 30). On the road they often head together to the nearest mall to pick up CDs and a snack or two for Bibby, who seems to consume food only slightly less often than he does oxygen. Bibby and Jackson aren't likely to talk about their fondness for each other, not on a team with players who, as Bibby puts it, "crack on you for every single thing you do." But it's there. "Yeah, he's O.K.," Jackson says of Bibby. "But I do wish the boy would stop eating from time to time."
Their styles are different too. Bibby glides through games with a graceful efficiency, making on-the-move adjustments that stamp him as a John Stockton in the making. Jackson, by contrast, exudes tenacity, the very quality that has enabled him to emerge as leader of the best supporting cast this side of Chicago. He's a stumpy 5'11" 185-pounder (never mind that 6'1" figure in the Kings' media guide) who had to walk away from the temptations of the street in his native Salisbury, N.C. (he says his mother, Sarah, who died of cancer four months ago, prevented him from selling crack cocaine as a 17-year-old); had to overcome the embarrassment of his central role in the academic cheating scandal at Minnesota; had to remain confident after being offered a nonguaranteed contract by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2000; and had to carve out a place on a guard-deep team that values shooting even though he was considered a poor-shooting guard. "The odds were against me making it here," Jackson says solemnly, "but the odds have always been against me."
Not so for the 6'1" Bibby, whose basketball credentials—father Henry was a UCLA All-America and is now USC's coach; Mike won an NCAA championship as an Arizona freshman in 1997 and was the No. 2 pick in the '98 draft—were much in evidence during last year's postseason. Bibby wasn't just the Kings' best player in their agonizing loss to the Lakers; with his teammates' shooting touch turned to stone and their insides to gelatin, he was pretty much their only player. In fact Bibby set the bar so high in the playoffs (he averaged 21.8 and 22.7 points against the Mavericks and the Lakers, respectively) that his solid performance this season (15.9 points, 5.2 assists) seemed disappointing, even to him. Though he was streaky during the first round, Bibby was the catalyst in a vital 99-82 Game 4 victory in Utah. Sacramento was losing 43-37 early in the third quarter when he turned the game around with this seven-minute sequence: assist, rebound, assist, steal, assist, rebound, 20-foot jumper.
Jackson was his usual productive self against the Jazz (12.8 points per game, 4.0 assists, 2.8 rebounds). What he achieved this year, particularly in the 26 games he started in place of an injured Bibby early in the season, surprised many around the NBA, considering that he was traded by the Seattle SuperSonics and the Denver Nuggets and all but told to pound sand by the Timberwolves, who favored Terrell Brandon and William Avery at point guard. With Jackson at the point the Kings went 20-6; he averaged 20.2 points on 50.3% shooting, with 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.58 steals. Jackson claimed the only adjustment he made to his game as a starter was "slacking down a little bit" on defense—i.e., toning down his relentless end-to-end harassment—but his teammates saw another subtle difference. "Bobby picked and chose his spots a little more," says shooting guard Doug Christie, "and I think that showed him he can play controlled for long periods."
Control is not usually what Jackson is about. "My game is to come in and hit you with a lot of stuff," says Jackson. Increasingly that stuff includes an accurate jumper. The Sacramento coaches and players swear he has worked harder on his shooting than any other player they've seen. "Everybody practices," says Bibby, "but Bobby works!' On daily, solitary trips to the Kings' practice facility last summer, Jackson would shoot as many as 1,000 jumpers. His pregame routine was so enervating that earlier this season, assistant coach Terry Porter ordered him to cut back; Jackson now shoots until he makes five on-the-move jumpers (instead of 10) from eight spots on the floor. Given Jackson's 46.4% shooting (37.9% from beyond the arc), it's no longer so easy for Peja Stojakovic to get on him about his bricklaying, the forward's retort when Jackson would ride him about his soft "European defense."
Jackson was so effective during his starting stint that there was speculation that coach Rick Adelman would reverse the roles when Bibby's broken right foot healed. But Bobby went back to leading the chickens. "I can't tell you why I'm not the starter," Jackson says. "That's not my job. The Sacramento Kings are a great team with two great point guards. I wouldn't be happy doing this on any other team. We have a tremendous chance to win a championship, so on this team it's O.K. for now."