LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The Los Angeles Lakers are about to face their biggest rival, and that’s of secondary importance.
The biggest thing right now is getting back on track and posting some victories.
“Every game is crucial, every game is important for us in trying to get out of this hole we’ve dug for ourselves,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said after a brisk practice in preparation for Wednesday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings.
The teams will be playing in a game that counts for the first time since last June, when the Lakers eliminated the Kings in the thrilling Western Conference finals _ a series that went to overtime in the seventh and deciding game at Arco Arena.
The teams took shots at each other throughout the offseason _ the Kings claiming they got jobbed by the officials; the Lakers saying the better team won and mixing in other assorted insults.
Perhaps the biggest was uttered by Shaquille O’Neal, who made the cutting remark when it seemed safe _ before this disaster of a season to date began for the three-time defending NBA champions.
“I’m not worried about the Sacramento Queens,” he said 2 1/2 months ago, disdain in his voice. “Write it down. Take a picture. I’m not going to talk about this all year.
“When I get back, there’s going to be trouble.”
O’Neal has been back for 17 games now, but it’s the Lakers in trouble, not the Kings, entering Wednesday night’s game between the bitter rivals at Staples Center.
Both teams have had to play through several injuries and suspensions to key players, but the Kings lead the Pacific Division with a 22-8 record and the Lakers are near the bottom at 11-18 _ 10 1/2 games off the pace.
“It’s another game,” O’Neal said following Tuesday’s practice in El Segundo. “This year, every team has become our rival. Statements that I said, I meant them when I said them, I’m not taking any statements back, ever, ever, ever.
“I think they’re a good team right now, they’re a hungry team. We have something that they want. A queen is a favorable name. To be a king, you have to dethrone a king. You can’t do that in one game.”
As far as the Lakers’ problems are concerned, O’Neal said: “I think it’s more mental than physical. We know what we have to do _ enough talking about it.”
The Lakers were 3-9 without O’Neal and are 8-9 since he returned. The Kings, meanwhile, were 21-6 without star guard Mike Bibby, who played last week for the first time this season.
The preseason finale between the teams on Oct. 25 adds to this drama.
With the game barely two minutes old, Sacramento’s Doug Christie and Los Angeles’ Rick Fox exchanged punches and were ejected.
Fox then chased down Christie in a Staples Center hallway to continue the fight. The result was a two-game suspension for Christie and a six-game suspension for Fox, contributing to the Lakers’ slow start.
“Doug who?” Fox said with a smile when asked about Christie.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Fox said when asked if he would shake hands with Christie before the game, as is the NBA custom. “I don’t want him to misconstrue a handshake as me coming at him.”
Fox said he regretted going after Christie off the court, but not what happened on the floor.
“I thought I was definitely in a preseason mindset, which was dangerous when facing a team that was carrying a different mindset,” Fox said, adding he believed Christie orchestrated the fight.
Asked about Christie’s play in the conference finals, Fox said: “I thought he folded under pressure. He was very honest in admitting it a few months later.”
Christie told the Sacramento Bee he was “scared to death” in the late going of Game 7.
Fox said the Kings-Lakers rivalry has grown, will continue to grow and added: “I don’t see where I will have a whole lot of hatred for them because they’ve been very good to us the last three years.”
The Lakers have eliminated the Kings from the playoffs on their way to each of their three straight championships.
“It’s a great rivalry, nothing manufactured about it,” Kings owner Gavin Maloof said. “They don’t like us and we don’t like them. That’s just the way it is. It’s probably the biggest rivalry in all of sports right now.”
Bryant smiled when asked about the rivalry.
“I don’t like `em,” he said. “I don’t know them as people. I’ve talked to Peja (Stojakovic) and Chris Webber is a real good dude.
“When you’re playing basketball and there’s competition, I don’t like `em.”
Sacramento’s Bobby Jackson said his team is looking at the Lakers as the team they were last year.
“We know they are going to be ready for us,” Jackson said. “Until they are not in the playoffs, they are still the team to beat. We’re looking forward to Christmas. If you’re not ready for that game, you shouldn’t be in the league.”
Webber compared the Christmas night game to a Super Bowl.
“It’s a game you always watch and dream of playing in,” he said. “It’s a natural stage, like football on Thanksgiving. It could be one of the largest games to be watched.”