The Sacramento Kings have style and flair and star power and offense and veteran leadership and quality coaching.

Their core group Ñ Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac Ñ is in its fourth season together.

Two things are lacking, however, as the Kings make their first bona fide run at an NBA championship.

They settle too easily for the long perimeter shot, eschewing their remarkable passing and post-up skills to go for the long ball, often with plenty of seconds on the shot clock.

And defense continues to be a concern. The last team without a strong defense to win an NBA title? You could argue Houston in 1994 and '95, but at least the Rockets had an in-his-prime Hakeem Olajuwon patrolling the middle.

In the playoffs, possessions become crucial as the game slows down and the intensity cranks up. Championship teams defend, and Sacramento didn't in its 116-110 overtime loss at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night. That snapped the Kings' 12-game winning streak and provided the Blazers with what they hope will be the impetus for a run up the ladder of Western Conference playoff qualifiers.

Good defense is achieved mostly through effort and hard work. The Kings have athletes with plenty of defensive capability, and a few of them Ñ Doug Christie, Scot Pollard and Bobby Jackson come to mind Ñ consistently work at it.

As a group, the Kings haven't gotten serious about it yet.

'It is hard to get players' attention when you have won 12 in a row, winning by 10 or 12 points against not very good teams,' coach Rick Adelman says. 'It's hard to get their attention unless we start losing games. Maybe we will get their attention now.'

Divac says the message already has been received.

'We can win a lot of games with offense, but in the playoffs, you have to play defense, too,' the veteran center says. 'You can see a difference in the team this year. We play with a lot of confidence. We play with purpose. We know the goal is to win a championship. To do that, we understand we have to be a good defensive team.'

There is a growing sense around the league that the Kings will be there to provide a for-real challenge to Laker supremacy this spring. Webber remains one of the league's true talents. Stojakovic is as good a pure shooter as there is in the game, a rising star. Mike Bibby has been a steady, sometimes spectacular upgrade from Jason Williams at point guard. The bench covers most of the necessities.

Adelman gives his players leeway, and it has worked to advantage with this group.

'You put responsibility on a player, there are two ways he can go,' Webber says. 'Either he is going to take it for granted and frustrate (the coach), or he is going to be more responsible. I think we have been more responsible. I know I can go out and hoist up any shot I want, as long as I am responsible.'

Sounds kind of shaky, doesn't it? And, yes, Webber takes a bad shot now and then, as does Stojakovic.

But no coach does a better job getting the most out of heavy-maintenance stars (Webber, Latrell Sprewell, Clyde Drexler, Rod Strickland) than Adelman. Webber had problems with Don Nelson at Golden State and off-court shenanigans in Washington, and his reputation had plummeted by the time he hooked up with Adelman.

'Having coach (Adelman) has been a godsend,' Webber says. 'I came in here with all this baggage, he sat me down and said, 'Whatever happened in the past happened in the past. I'll judge you from this day forward.'

'Coach has been kind of preparing us for this year, not wanting us to know we can be this good. You can see he was planting the seed three years ago. He picked us up as kids and made us grow up. He knew we had more to reach, more than we did.

'Every year, we have gotten better. This year, he kind of put the pressure on us. He has never said, 'Guys, you can win a championship,' but he said, 'It's in your hands.' '

Adelman says he considers his '01-02 Kings in the same class with the Portland teams that reached the finals in '90 and '92.

'We are a different type of team, though,' he says. 'Those (Portland) teams weren't as talented as some people made them out to be. We played hard every night, did the things that could make us win. We rebounded, we were aggressive, we were tough, and we were really good when we shot it well.

'This team is about the same, except offensively we are so much better. Our big guys pass. We shoot it. Everybody can make shots and make passes and make plays. This team has a chance to be just that good.'

And, Adelman hopes, good enough to take it a step further.

CHASING KAREEM: Utah is playing better, and Karl Malone has backed away from the idea of being traded, understanding that his salary and age make him almost unmovable, and that owner Larry Miller wants him to end his career with the Jazz anyway.

Malone's secondary goal (after winning a title) is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record of 38,387 points. The Mailman, No. 2 on the all-time list, is closing in on 34,000. If he avoids injury and averages 20 a game, he should pass Kareem late in the 2003-04 season. Malone would be 40, but with the kind of physical condition he keeps himself in, does anyone doubt he can do it?

Malone is under contract for $19.25 million in 2002-03) and would like to play an additional season. Miller has not promised him another year. However, Malone says it is written into his contract that the Jazz must exercise the option for an extension by July 1 and that the extension has to be for the maximum (about $21 mil). Otherwise, Malone will play out his final year and look elsewhere, or the Jazz can deal him before that plays out.

NOTES: The NBA lost two of the seven officials atop its seniority list with the retirement of Mike Mathis and Terry Durham last month. Tommy Nunez (29 years of service) is the leader, followed by Jess Kersey (28), Dick Bavetta and Hue Hollins (26), Joey Crawford and Mathis (25) and Durham (24). ... Two women Ñ Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer Ñ are among the NBA's 55 referees. Four women are working in the National Basketball Developmental League, which features young talent not ready for the NBA. Ed Rush, the NBA's supervisor of officials, says that he is 'very comfortable with the top five or six referees' in the NBDL and that many or all of them could be working in the NBA next season, but none are women. 'Do I see (the women) going in that direction in the future?' Rush says. 'Yes. We are extremely pleased with all four. But we aren't going to force-feed them before they are ready.'

Rush says he speaks all the time with his referee corps about 'the psychological wiring of a human being.' He says he wants his officials to have open ears to coaches and players, to a point: 'They will listen if a guy develops a legitimate level of communication with them. Like (former Blazer) Steve Smith. He is a communicator. He talks a lot (with referees), but there is a level of respect. Some guys figure that out real fast. A few never figure it out. It is their responsibility to act professionally. If they don't, it' our job to respond.'

Steve Smith is married to the cousin of Joe Dumars' wife, Debbie. The ex-Blazer spent much of last summer living at the Detroit home of the Dumars. When word came of the trade from Portland to San Antonio, the Detroit general manager told Smith he was fortunate: 'When you get to be 32, 33 as a guard, it starts to get real tough to create shots. With big Tim (Duncan) and Dave (Robinson) down there, he just needs to spot up, and he's a great spot-up shooter. It was a perfect move for him.'

Indeed. Smitty leads the league in 3-point percentage at .565 (70 of 124), the only player better than .500. Steve Kerr's single-season record of .524 remains in jeopardy. ... Smith, asked about his two years with the Blazers by the Boston Globe: 'Actually, I didn't mind it there. They are really good guys. Management keeps changing players, and they still have the same results ... there have to be other changes, someone else other than players.' Smith told the Globe that Portland GM Bob Whitsitt collected too many All-Star-caliber players: 'You have a star in the middle of his career and you want to make him a role player? That's hard.'

Detroit's Jerry Stackhouse, a former North Carolina teammate of Rasheed Wallace, is lobbying for the Pistons to acquire the All-Star forward. 'I don't see that bond with anybody on (the Blazers) that I know he would have here if he were with me,' Stackhouse says. Problem is, the only player Portland would be interested in off Detroit's roster would be Stackhouse. ... Speaking of the Pistons, I swear that coach Rick Carlisle, the ex-Blazer assistant, and the great Jim Carrey were separated at birth. ... Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal should return this weekend after being carried off the floor because of a a hyperextended knee against Milwaukee 10 days ago. The former Blazer, incidentally, is a likely first-time All-Star at center for the East squad in next month's midseason classic at Philadelphia.

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