Reaching the top of the NBA mountain is no quick journey. It's an arduous, stair-step process, often fraught with painful lessons and heartbreaking defeats. Even then, there's no guarantee you'll actually get there.

Perhaps that perspective can help the Nets and Mavericks better understand the kind of harsh punishment they've both recently received at the hand of the Sacramento Kings.

While the Kings aren't officially the best team in basketball -- they'll have to prove that this summer -- they're generally recognized as the best team going. To get that recognition, they had to suffer through their own series of growing pains.

Most of those pains have come in the playoffs. There was the first-round exit to Utah in 1999, followed by another early exit to the Lakers in 2000. Then the Western Conference semifinal loss to the Lakers the following season. Then last season's bitter-tasting seven-game defeat to the Lakers in the conference finals.

With each loss, they've moved forward. The next step this season would mean reaching the NBA Finals.

"We've probably been through the most in the NBA in the last four years," Kings Coach Rick Adelman told the Sacramento Bee. "We have experienced the most pain. . . . We tend to think we can draw on that experience."

Previous NBA champions have also drawn on that experience.

Prior to winning the past three titles, the Lakers were swept by San Antonio in the 1999 conference semifinals, despite a roster that arguably had more talent than their current lineup.

Prior to winning the first of their six titles, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls lost three consecutive playoff series to Detroit, twice in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And prior to winning their two titles, the Pistons lost a tough seven-game series in the 1988 NBA Finals to the Lakers -- and the year before that, lost in the conference finals.

The Nets and the Mavericks are working their way up the ladder. The Mavericks have the more difficult path, playing in the loaded Western Conference. Both have learned from the Kings this season. The Mavericks also received a painful, but potentially valuable lesson in blowing a 30-point lead to the Lakers last month.

"Look at the history of championship teams," ESPN analyst Sean Elliott said. "Detroit taught Chicago how to win. The Lakers taught Detroit.

"The championship teams kind of teach the other teams what it takes to get the job done. It takes a year of disappointment. Rarely does it happen the first time you make an attempt at it.

"If Sacramento can learn from the way they lost to the Lakers last year, then they're ready to take the next step."

There Is Crying in Basketball

Vin Baker had hoped his crying episode following the Celtics' loss last week in Dallas would not be made public. Baker was distraught after receiving what anybody could remember as the first healthy DNP (Did Not Play) of his career. Boston Coach Jim O'Brien took the blame because he didn't inform the struggling Baker that the rotation against the Mavs wouldn't include him. Baker said he had no trouble with O'Brien's decision, and O'Brien had no trouble with Baker's tears. "I think there's probably not enough emotion on a day-to-day basis in the NBA," O'Brien said. "So I think that's great." . . .

Nets Coach Byron Scott was upset that New Jersey fans booed his team during the 36-point loss to the Kings at rarely sold-out Continental Airlines Arena. "If you're the 14,000 that's been coming every game, you can boo," Scott said. "The other 6,000 that just came to that game, you should shut up. You have no right." So much for the adage that the customer is always right. . . .

Now we'll get to see the true desperation level teams have for a big, inside presence. Rotund center Stanley Roberts, 32, has been reinstated after a three-year ban for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Roberts, Shaquille O'Neal's sidekick at LSU, appeared to have a decent future before injury problems kicked in. The 76ers own his rights, but if they release him, some team may take a flyer on him. . . .

If the Knicks and Heat are going to rise up and, ahem, "challenge" for a playoff spot, now would be the time. The Knicks are in a 15-game stretch in which they play 12 teams with losing records. And the Heat, with Eddie Jones back in the lineup, begins a stretch Saturday in which nine of its next 11 games are at home.