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High stakes for Mavs and Kings

Coaching job could be on the line for loser

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Forward Chris Webber will be a key to Sacramento's hopes in first-round playoff series against the Mavs.

Forward Chris Webber will be a key to Sacramento’s hopes in first-round playoff series against the Mavs.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — One immensely talented team will be eliminated in the first round. One coaching staff could be finished. At least one fanatical owner will be hugely disappointed to see his millions wasted.

The stakes are enormous in the Sacramento Kings' playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks. Both teams began the season as Western Conference powerhouses with serious designs on a championship, but underwhelming regular seasons pushed the NBA's two highest-scoring teams into an early-round meeting for the third straight spring.

The losing team in this rubber match could be headed for sweeping changes, but only the Kings appear to feel the pressure.

The fifth-seeded Mavericks laughed and joked their way through a shootaround Saturday, with Mark Cuban holding court at Arco Arena while Don Nelson's army of assistant coaches watched over the Mavs' preparations for Sunday's opener.

"I've got no rabbits to pull out," Nelson said. "What I've got is what you've already seen. We're just going to try to play our style, and if that's not good enough, we're going home."

Across the parking lot at the Kings' training complex, Sacramento sweated through another day of tough workouts. While the Mavs hit their stride with a small-ball lineup in the final three weeks of the regular season, the Kings lost eight of their last 12 and blew the Pacific Division title with a loss to Golden State in the finale.

"We're looking for revenge," guard Mike Bibby said. "Everybody has picked us to lose. Everybody has given up on us. We're out to prove everybody wrong. I know I've got a little higher motivation than I did in the regular season."

The teams' previous postseason meetings have been tremendous exhibitions of full-court, up-tempo basketball — either the best or the worst of the NBA, depending on the observer's appetite for shameless offense. A few sample scores from the past two seasons: 125-119, 115-113, 124-113, 132-110 — and of course, the 141-137 double-overtime thriller in Game 3 last season.

"That's the way I always wanted to play," said Dallas forward Antawn Jamison, who arguably supplanted Sacramento's Bobby Jackson as the NBA's top sixth man after his arrival from the Warriors. "I saw them on TV last year, and that was great basketball. I hope we can do the same thing this year."

Jamison and the Mavericks' other new arrivals struggled to join the flow earlier this season, and Dallas quickly slid out of contention for the Midwest Division title. Cuban remained solidly behind Nelson — and three weeks ago, the innovative coach went with a lineup using 6-foot-9 Antoine Walker as the center in a small but aggressive offense.

The Mavs responded with eight victories in their final 10 games, holding off Memphis for the conference's fifth seed. Their lineup presents serious matchup problems for the Kings and their towering front line of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and All-Star Brad Miller.

"They're probably going to go small, so we've got to figure out how to defend and help each other," said Peja Stojakovic, the NBA's second-leading scorer. "We've got to use our size advantage."

More than momentum separates the Kings and the Mavs, the only two teams to average more than 100 points per game this season. Both teams also made risky late-season changes to their strategies — and while Dallas' small lineup was an immediate success, the Kings' changes have been a disaster.

Sacramento was atop the league in scoring and victories in early March, when Webber returned from knee surgery and immediately was put back in the Kings' rotation.

That's also when everything began to fall apart. Webber was nowhere close to full strength, but coach Rick Adelman decided Webber needed playing time to get back in sync with his teammates — even at the expense of Miller, who was benched to make room.

It didn't work out that way. Webber has been unable to shoot consistently on one leg, while Miller struggled when he was thrust into a different role with fewer minutes. The problems invaded the rest of the Kings, who admit they played without much fire during their collapse in the final weeks.

But the Kings insist they've still got time to rescue their season — even if their first-round matchup might be the last team they wanted to play.

"It's never been a secret that this will be an up-and-down style in this series," Doug Christie said. "That might be a way for us to get our flow back. We sure hope so."