SACRAMENTO -- Someone forgot to tell the Sacramento Kings that last season's NBA playoffs are a thing of the past.
Perhaps it was the same someone who forgot to tell the Jazz that this season is a thing of the present, and that their gift for beating teams like the Kings does not come without a price -- or that it is not nearly as easy as it once was.Utah found that out the hard way Friday night, when a high-dollar crowd at sold-out Arco Arena watched the Kings play postseason-style basketball in a 105-92 victory over the oh-so-ordinary-looking Jazz.
"All last year, and after the finals, it's been like this, with other teams gunning for us. And we have to prepare for them," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek, the memory of back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and '98 still fresh in his mind. "Right now, we are not at that level."
Right now, the Jazz are 3-3. Right now, they are still searching for an identity.
"We need to decide if we want to be a great team, or just an OK team," veteran point guard John Stockton said. "It's easy in this league to be just OK."
"Obviously, we're just playing like an average team," Hornacek added. "Somehow we have to get back to that (contender-like) level. Maybe not enough guys realize what it takes to get back to that level."
Against an up-and-coming team like the Kings, it takes more than what the Jazz had to offer Friday night.
Twenty points from Karl Malone, 14 points from Hornacek, nine assists by Stockton and just four rebounds from starting center Olden Polynice were not nearly enough against a well-rested Kings club playing its home opener.
The Kings had four starters hit double figures, led by a team-high 20 points from Chris Webber, and two others off the bench, Jon Barry and Lawrence Funderburke, who contributed 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Even more than the points, though, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was upset that his team didn't do enough of the little things it takes to beat the same team with which it went to overtime three times last season, not to mention a hard-fought opening-round NBA playoffs series that the Jazz eventually won in five games.
"They've got a heckuva team," Sloan said, "and if you don't come ready to play, you won't beat them. . . . They went after it. They were hungry for it. And we didn't go after the basketball."
They didn't go after it nearly enough on the offensive boards, evidenced by the mere 13 second-chance points scored by the Jazz. The Kings had 24 of the same. And they didn't go after it nearly hard enough on the floor, which was enough to drive Sloan batty.
"That's what's frustrating," he said. "I mean, I can understand guys making shots."
And the Kings had plenty of those, including Webber, who hit 4-of-4 in the second quarter as Sacramento jumped out to a 51-44 halftime lead, and Jason Williams, who finished 6-of-14 from the field, with two of his makes and all but one of his misses coming from 3-point range.
It was a run by Williams that might have done the Jazz the most harm, as he hit two 3-pointers and a nifty layup during one stretch of the third quarter that put the Kings up 61-55. The flashy Williams went behind his back with his dribble before laying the ball in, and that was hardly his fanciest play of the night.
That came later in the third, when Williams first dribbled through his legs, then made a behind-the-back pass to Webber, who hesitated for a few moments before passing the ball to center Vlade Divac for a definitive dunk that put the Kings ahead 71-58.
On top of everything like that going Sacramento's way, the Kings also some had some ever-so-desirable bounces going in their favor as well.
There was Webber missing a dunk, then getting the ball back himself for an easy layup. There was Barry diving to the floor for a loose ball, and knocking it out of bounds -- off of Hornacek. Heck, even the guy who took the promotional timeout shot from halfcourt had things go his way.
Nothing but net. Won a pickup truck.
It seemed fitting all would go so well on this night for the Kings, a once-hapless franchise now enjoying newfound success under new ownership, the Maloof family of New Mexico. Season-ticket sales are up from about 6,000 last season to more than 10,000 this season. And tickets for Friday's opener, the Kings' first game since they split a pair with Minnesota in Japan last weekend, were being brokered for more than $700, including some seats that reportedly went for $1,500 a pop.
All this to see a Sacramento team that once struggled to win at all, let alone beat proud franchises like the Jazz. But now it's the Jazz who find themselves struggling, unable to coast against clubs like the Kings and uncertain which side of .500 it really deserves to be on.
"We won't play .500 if we continue like this," said Sloan, who called the Jazz one of the poorest rebounding teams in the league. "That's something they have to decide for themselves."
At least one already has mind made up.
"No," said Malone, who survived a scare when he went down to the floor for several minutes with a stinger that he initially thought might be a more-serious neck injury. "This team is not a .500 team."
Malone did not say if he believes the Jazz are capable of playing above 500, or under. We can only assume he meant for better, and not for worse. And we can only assume that Malone does not forget to tell his teammates which is the case.