The Sacramento Kings were four minutes away from so many rewards: control of their second-round playoff series, two big wins in Minnesota, and a decisive answer for those who still question their toughness and heart.
Instead, they experienced their biggest collapse in a season full of them -- and gave the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves ample reason to believe they're still in charge of their Western Conference semifinal series.
"Confidence is fuel," MVP Kevin Garnett said yesterday. "Without confidence, we can't survive in this league, much less this series."
The Timberwolves made a 16-1 run to a 94-89 victory in Game 2 Saturday night, tying the series -- which now heads to Sacramento for two games in three days, starting tonight.
The Kings had a 10-point lead and all the momentum leading up to a timeout with 4:05 left Saturday. Everything was clicking for coach Rick Adelman and his experienced team of playoff veterans, who insisted their regular-season struggles wouldn't extend to the postseason.
And then the Kings crumbled under the pressure.
"It'll test our mettle," Adelman said. "They're up in the air right now, and we're a little deflated."
Sacramento's six seasons of postseason experience were thought to be an advantage over the Timberwolves, who have four starters and two key reserves in their first season with the club. It didn't work out that way in the tense final minutes of Game 2, when veteran Sam Cassell had more tenacity than Sacramento's entire roster.
The loss humbled the Kings, who seemed ready to shake the memory of their late-season collapse. Sacramento lost eight of its final 12 regular-season games to blow the Pacific Division title -- and suddenly, that same helplessness was back.
Though the Kings stole home-court advantage in Minnesota with a decisive win in Game 1, the pressure still is squarely on their shoulders. Minnesota was the only opponent to win two games at Arco Arena during the regular season -- and after their roaring comeback, the Timberwolves were energized by their first taste of second-round success.
Except for Cassell, who scored 19 points and hit two clutch shots in the run, the Timberwolves weren't particularly good in the final minutes -- and they floundered early in the fourth quarter, clearly feeling the pressure of going down, 0-2, at home in the franchise's first trip to the second round. But after taking an 88-78 lead on a series of outstanding offensive possessions, the Kings suddenly lost it.
Doug Christie, playing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, missed two key free throws after hitting 86 percent earlier in the playoffs, and Chris Webber missed another. Kings fans know free throw ineptitude has been a Sacramento postseason hallmark since the 2002 conference finals, when their misses probably cost them Game 7 against the Lakers.
Inexplicably, Christie also took two of the biggest shots down the stretch -- long-distance, off-balance jumpers by an outside shooter who struggles under the best circumstances.
All-Star Peja Stojakovic didn't get a field goal in the final 8:56, and he couldn't even get open in the final minutes. Webber and Brad Miller also stood around, unable to get anything going.
Meanwhile, Cassell never hesitated to try his luck. After winning two championships with Houston early in his career, few things scare the point guard. "Playoff basketball, in my eyes, doesn't start until a team wins on someone else's home court," said Cassell. "They came here and won, and we have an opportunity to go down there and win. It's not going to be easy, but we understand the situation."