Shaquille O'Neal had a clarification to make. Leaning casually against a brick wall outside the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility this afternoon, he explained that when he called the Sacramento Kings the "Sacramento Queens" earlier this season, he was actually paying them a compliment.
"A queen is a favorable name," he said, and then he paused for a moment, knowing full well he should stop there but also that he probably wouldn't.
"But to be the king, you need to overthrow the king, and they haven't done that yet," he said, smiling. "And one game isn't going to get it done."
Perhaps not. Yet when the Lakers and Kings face off at Staples Center on Christmas, both teams will have plenty at stake, and bragging rights are just the beginning of it.
To the Kings (22-8), Wednesday's game is a chance to wipe clean a series of playoff near misses with proof that they are, in fact, the best team in the Western Conference. It is a chance to get back at O'Neal for that "queens" comment as well as Coach Phil Jackson and players such as Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox for jibing insults of their own. But most of all, it is a chance to show that this is their turn, their time, like the Detroit Pistons once did to the Boston Celtics, like the Chicago Bulls once did to the Pistons.
The Lakers (11-18), on the other hand, want this game to show they are not quite ready to get off the stage, a point they need to make to themselves as much as to anybody else. For the last two months, they have been bickering, bartering, badgering -- doing pretty much everything, except winning -- and the inconsistency has been as wearing as the losing.
"We're not playing well enough to feel like we're going into this game knowing what we can do -- one night we're competitive and then the next night we don't know what we're doing out there," said Jackson, noting that he hadn't dealt with a situation like this since becoming an NBA coach. "We just need to eliminate some of the garbage and play."
Until now, it's the garbage that's been dominant. Even during the best of times, the Lakers have never been free of fissures, but cracks in team unity don't feel as desperate when you can use championship trophies as spackle. Once the losing sets in, however, pettiness is free to rush through the crevices, and sure enough, both Bryant and O'Neal have turned on the Lakers' supporting players.
"I just want eight guys out there with me who want to play," an apparently mathematically challenged O'Neal said after one particularly embarrassing game a few weeks ago; and while there was some humor in his disregard for the tradition of just five players on the court at a time, his message remained clear. After another losing effort, O'Neal simply refused to answer questions, saying: "Talk to the [expletives] that ain't doing nothing. Don't talk to me."
Naturally, neither of these sentiments evoked a flood of Hallmark cards in return.
"That's the easy way out," guard Brian Shaw said upon hearing of O'Neal's words, and while Jackson quickly held a team meeting to soothe players' chafed egos, the damage had been done.
"I would like to think that because people feel free enough to air things, that's healthy, but when they do it with the rest of the world instead of behind closed doors, that's not so healthy," Fox said. "And then it doesn't help when you get off to a slow start as a team; it magnifies individual problems."
Making O'Neal's words particularly painful has been that there is some truth to them -- O'Neal missed the first two weeks of the season recovering from toe surgery and is still not at full strength, yet players such as Derek Fisher, Samaki Walker and Devean George never moved to pick up the slack. This may be because they can't; the bulk of the Lakers' roster is the same as during their championship runs, which means that while Los Angeles has an experienced team, it also has an older, more tired team, with more players prone to injury.
Robert Horry has played in so many postseason games in his run to five NBA championships they practically make up two full additional seasons. Fisher, with a twice-broken foot and now thigh and jaw problems, can't move as well defensively, and Fox is having a hard time drumming up the kind of consistency in Cleveland in December that he usually saves for Sacramento in May.
Even the team's stars appear worn down. O'Neal says he put off his surgery until the end of the offseason because doctors couldn't agree on a proper treatment, but while he feels confident he had the correct procedure in the end, he still feels pain. He also has yet to get back in shape, and Bryant, too, has had nagging injuries.
Meantime, the clock is running out, and Lakers officials have made it clear that if the team does not seem to be coming together by the end of the month, they will start considering making roster changes. The players, of course, don't believe that's necessary, although they also realize it will take more than a victory against Sacramento to change the course of their season.
"We fully expect to go out and win this game, but we don't think it's going to represent a rebirth to everything that's gone wrong this season," Fisher said. "We just have to hope to finish this year strong and try to build from there."
Notes: Fox, who got into a scuffle with the Kings' Doug Christie during a preseason game, said he is confident "it will be all basketball" when the two take the court Wednesday. It is certainly hard to imagine a replay of the bizarre scene in October, when Christie punched Fox, Fox chased Christie down a hallway and Christie's wife came barreling after them, swinging her pocketbook. Still, Fox said he'll be prepared, no matter what. "I bought my wife a big, big, big purse for Christmas," he said. "Just in case."