-- It seemed dumbfounding, how the Sacramento Kings kept looking over their shoulders for more than a half, checking to see if the sleepwalking Minnesota Timberwolves would awaken and make the fourth game of their compelling Western Conference semifinal as competitive as the first three.
Sacramento could have easily pulled far enough ahead to cruise to a victory on its home court, but the Kings refused to press the issue.
And sure enough, in the third quarter Minnesota drew even. But just as the stage seemed set for the Kings to blow a 17-point lead, they caught a second wind, and, behind the inspired fourth-quarter play of backup center Brad Miller and a strong offensive game from Chris Webber, emerged with an 87-81 victory Wednesday at Arco Arena to tie the series 2-2.
By defeating Minnesota for the first time at home in four tries -- the other two coming in the regular season -- the Kings made sure that all four NBA conference semifinal series are tied entering the fifth game of the best-of-seven format. Game 5 is Friday in Minneapolis with Game 6 in Sacramento Sunday.
This series is the only one of the four where each team has won a road game. Sacramento made sure it did not happen twice by outscoring Minnesota, 28-24, in the fourth quarter. Miller had 11 of his 20 points in the final period, while the Kings as a whole kept the Timberwolves from establishing the type of offensive flow they used to rally to 53-53 on Sam Cassell's lone three-pointer with 2 minutes 33 seconds remaining in the third period.
Webber scored a game-high 28 points, playing a steady offensive game, mainly from 15-feet. Guard Mike Bibby added 15 points and 12 assists.
Minnesota, meanwhile, will lament the fact that they played the first two quarters as if it was simply happy to have won Game 3 here and that leaving these hostile grounds with the series even was okay. Playing in the second round of the postseason for the first time in franchise history, the Timberwolves had a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, but its key players and role players failed to deliver when needed.
Forward Kevin Garnett scored a team-high 19 points and grabbed a game-high 21 rebounds but he made just 8 of 18 shots. Cassell had 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting and Latrell Sprewell added 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
Minnesota also turned the ball over 24 times -- nine in a first quarter in which it mustered just 15 points.
The usually raucous Arco Arena crowd was sedate for the first two quarters, not because the home team was getting pushed around -- quite the contrary -- but because the Timberwolves were in such a passive state, they dragged the caliber of play, the emotion and entertainment value of the game down to a near sleep-inducing level.
Sacramento took advantage of the disinterested Timberwolves to go into halftime up 42-31, but the failure to really make Minnesota pay for is 33 percent shooting, 13 turnovers and overall ineptness left them with an opportunity to make a second-half run. Minnesota shot just 33 percent and turned the ball over 13 times, but the Kings only scored 10 points off Minnesota blunders.
That lack of killer instinct caught up to them in the third quarter as Minnesota's alarm finally went off and they decided to play. After falling down by 13 early in the period, the Timberwolves clicked off 11 unanswered points to get to 46-44. Sacramento, sensing a collapse, built its lead to six, but the Timberwolves were coming and after an open-court dribbling turnover by Webber, Cassell tied the score. Bibby and Webber responded with back-to-back scores to give Sacramento some breathing room, but the period ended with Minnesota lurking from just two points back at 59-57.