Friday, May 31
Updated: June 1, 10:37 AM ET
West finals have been Bibby's coming-out party
By Ric Bucher
ESPN The Magazine
LOS ANGELES -- However the Western Conference finals end Sunday, the series' defining image will be of Mike Bibby, cotton wadding packed into his right nostril, floor burns on his right knee, a glowing strawberry on his right hip and anger clouding his face.
The Kings lost to the Lakers 106-102 on Friday, but Bibby made sure they did not fall to them. Even after taking a right forearm from Kobe Bryant across the bridge of his nose that left Bibby face down on the floor, even with the difficulty of breathing through one nostril, even with the 6-foot-7 Bryant shadowing him with a six-inch height advantage -- as he should have at the end of Game 5 -- Bibby wanted the ball at the end.
His 3-point attempt from the top of the arc, snapped off as soon as he sensed a sliver of separation from Kobe, missed left.
"I shot thinking I would make it," Bibby said.
You get the sense he always thinks that way. Just as important, the Kings are thinking that way, too -- about Bibby and, thereby, themselves.
Chris Webber, inspired by Bibby's refusal to cave even after both Scot Pollard and Vlade Divac fouled out, backed down Robert Horry without hesitation for a jump hook, the kind of aggression some have suggested he didn't have in him. He also promised Bibby redemption, right there on the court, after Bibby's desperation 3-pointer went awry and Horry sealed the victory with a free throw.
"I told him I won't forget my point guard was on the floor bleeding," Webber said. "I'm supposed to be his protector. I'm not saying I'm going to play dirty or get back at anybody. I don't know what it will take, but seeing him like that will be in the back of my mind."
Debate will rage over the no-call on Kobe's attempted swim move that knocked Bibby down. Those who side with Sacramento will insist it was intentional and warranted a flagrant foul, as one Kings official did. They will say it was only part of a concerted effort to make sure the series had a Game 7 by awarding the Lakers 27 fourth-quarter free throws, worth 21 of their last 31 points.
Those who favor the Lakers will counter that Webber levelled Derek Fisher in a similar manner in Game 6 to free Bibby for the game-winning jumper. They will argue that the officials let Bobby Jackson grab Kobe's jersey on the Lakers' final shot in Game 6.
From someone who is simply grateful for such a stirring series, calls have gone both ways throughout the series, including those when a defender has stuck his mug in the chest of the offensive player. Defend anyone that close and you risk getting clocked. Exactly how close you are in the eyes of the official will determine whether it's an offensive foul, a blocking charge, or, in a last-second situation, a no-call, since the referees don't want a 50-50 play decided at the free-throw line.
"It's just the reality of the matter," said Webber. "I've heard from some champions that to get to be a champion, you have to go through this."
Boil it all down and this probably is where the series belongs, headed to a Game 7 on the Kings' homecourt by virtue of their league-best record. That alone has lifted Sacramento's stature from a talented finesse team into one with the raw fiber to go toe-to-toe with the two-time defending champions.
The bulk of that fiber, of course, has been provided by their smallest player, the one with the No. 10 jersey. As Bibby left the court, he yelled defiantly at the crowd, the same way he yelled after burying his game-winning jumper in Game 5.
"He's a battler," backup point guard Bobby Jackson said. "He's got the heart of a lion. He's ready to take us to the next plateau."
That, at least, shouldn't be up for debate.