Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Skinner, Thomas outperform Webber

By Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine
Chris Webber returned to Arco Arena on Monday night and showed why Kings fans developed such deep-seated feelings about him during a seven-year run that lifted an afterthought of a team to a perennial playoff contender.

He also showed why the Kings are better off without him.

Webber, dealt to the Sixers in February as part of a six-player trade, finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes, but then the man has always been able to wield that pterodactyl's wingspan and massive mitts to fill a stat sheet. He also can be damn entertaining, whether it's with his dramatic facial expressions or moves truly audacious for someone listed as 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds.

It's when he gets those numbers that has long raised skepticism about his superstar status. Monday night's 118-109 Kings' victory only provided more fodder: The Sixers trailed by two going into the fourth quarter. Webber played nine minutes in the final period and contributed one rebound and three points. The Kings led 102-97 when Webber returned from a three-minute breather, replacing Marc Jackson. Less than two minutes after that, Sacramento had made a 9-0 run and put the game away.

Webber has sometimes been forgotten in the Sixers' offense while Allen Iverson runs rampant, but that wasn't the case here. Webber wasn't ready for an Iverson pass, producing one turnover. The next came when Kyle Korver tried to feed him in the post and Webber couldn't reach the ball. An air ball jump hook over Kenny Thomas followed.

To make it all worse, Brian Skinner and Thomas made it look as if they should've been the featured players in the deal. Skinner had 13 points and 19 rebounds, and Thomas chipped in 20 and 15, along with coaxing Webber, single coverage and all, into an 8-for-26 shooting performance.

"Maybe they won't say it, but they both had a bounce to their step," Kings coach Rick Adelman said. "They were ready to play."

For Webber, meanwhile, file this one under the heading: Not Getting It Done. Or, maybe: Same Old, Same Old.

But if you're more into the WWE than W's and L's – and, for some reason, that seemed to be the theme – Webber delivered. Before the game, he focused on distributing 30 or so tickets to friends. After the game, he talked about his love for Sacramento and the friendships with Kings teammates that will endure, although it's worth noting that none got together with him when he arrived in town Sunday night. He hit some early jumpers and made a couple of strong fourth-quarter drives to get to the free-throw line for his three points, but otherwise he made GM Geoff Petrie appear to be a freakin' genius.

Even Adelman, who goes the extra mile to be diplomatic, couldn't disguise how little concern Webber warranted. "I told the team, it's all about how we play," he said. "After seven years, I know what Chris is going to do and where he's going to be. As you may have noticed, their offense is centered around Allen Iverson."

The night's emotions were centered on Webber, though, and everybody went along with it. The fans gave him a standing ovation of nearly a minute upon his introduction, the first half of which Webber whispered in Korver's ear as if to distract himself. These, after all, were fans who booed him when he tried to play his way back into form on his bad wheel last year and disrupted the flow the Kings had developed without him.

The fans outlasted him, though, forcing Webber to look up and around the arena and applaud them in return. A nice gesture, to be sure, though with Webber you never quite know what's sincere and what is simply the role he has chosen to play for the night.

Once the ball went up, he reverted to his long-running I'm-a-badass persona, a recurring role he first broke out with the Fab Five in Michigan. This time, though, he didn't play it with the same intensity seen in his first meetings with the Wizards, say, after they traded him or the first few times he faced Don Nelson after his exodus from the Warriors. He buried a 20-foot jumper 11 seconds into the game, then peered around Skinner to glower at former teammate Mike Bibby, as if to say, "Bring it." When Bibby drove for a layup, Webber stepped over to challenge the shot and knocked Bibby on his back in the follow-through, as if to say, "Don't think I won't." Or maybe it was: "Yeah, I didn't do much of that when I was here this season, but that doesn't mean I can't."

Then, when Peja Stojakovic came at him on a breakaway and missed a leaner, Webber grabbed the rebound and smirked, as if to say, "I told you he was soft." This being the Peja he vaguely accused last summer of not being tough enough and thereby contributing to why the Kings never reached the NBA Finals. When another turnover produced another Stojakovic drive on Webber, Stojakovic finished this one and drew a foul. Webber patted referee Gary Zielinski on the butt, said, "Good call," then sneered all the way back to the 76ers' bench. A little later, he grabbed a rebound and bounce passed it behind his back to Iverson while staring at the Kings' bench, as if to say, "Yeah, you once had a big man who could that."

All that, though, proved to be merely for show. If he really held any animosity or resentment toward his former teammates, it had dissipated by the second quarter. By the fourth quarter, so had his effectiveness. That left the door open for the other guys in the deal – Thomas and Skinner – to demonstrate that they had some emotions tied up in the night, as well. Skinner also played nine minutes in the final period, only his line read: five rebounds, two assists, one steal, two blocked shots, two points.

It is, of course, only one night, and 76ers coach Jim O'Brien is gradually finding a way to take advantage of Webber's strengths and protect his weaknesses. The Sixers no longer blitz pick-and-rolls but force the ball to the baseline, saving Webber from having to jump out and back – since he can't. While Iverson remains their offensive focal point, they mixed in enough plays for Webber against the Kings to keep him happy.

But the Kings clearly aren't mourning his absence. They are playing with the zest of men freed from bondage. Maybe they aren't any more of a threat to win a title this year than they were with him – but the way they looked Monday night, they certainly aren't any less.

As one visiting scout suggested, upon hearing the standing ovation: "I wonder if they're applauding that he's gone."

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