Tough enough?

It’s strange, isn’t it? After so many years of second-class citizenship in the cellar of the NBA’s Western Division, several frustrating seasons as a “fun team” of entertaining also-rans, and one heartbreaker of a loss in the seventh game of the conference finals, the Kings have arrived. Sacramento, so accustomed to second-fiddle status, is suddenly the odds-on favorite to win it all.

Sports Illustrated picked the Kings to triumph over the three-time-champion Los Angeles Lakers and bring home a title this season, and so has just about every other reliable prognosticator north of Bakersfield and east of the Mojave. Yet, as hard-won as this recognition has been, it also seems a little premature, as evidenced by the Kings’ recent bench-clearing brawl with the Lakers.

The truth is that the Kings have had enough talent to win a championship for at least the past two seasons. What they have lacked is mental toughness: that ineffable mix of confidence, concentration, competitive instinct and sheer nerve that enables teams to play their best even in the most adverse situations.

Mental toughness means working hard on defense, making high-pressure free throws, executing the offense with a defender in your face and trash talk in your ear, and making open shots with the season on the line. It does not mean throwing elbows, brawling or otherwise trying to prove your manhood in ways that take you out of your game, and that’s a distinction the Kings apparently still need to learn.

For years, popular opinion has held that Sacramento needs to be more physical to succeed in the playoffs. That’s not true. The Kings rely on skill and finesse rather than brute force. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, part of the reason the Kings have been so popular with nationwide television audiences is that it’s more fun to watch the Kings pass, run and shoot than it is to see the Knicks or the Heat push, punch and hold. The Kings owe their success to quickness, skill and their ability to play together as a unit, and it’d be a shame if someone convinced them that they needed to forego speed and smarts to engage Shaquille O’Neil in a sumo match.

That’s a contest the Kings can’t win against the 7-foot-1-inch, 330-pound O’Neil, and that’s exactly the sort of game the Lakers are trying to bait the Kings into this year. From O’Neil’s tasteless comments about the “Sacramento Queens” to Rick Fox’s provocations that started the recent brawl, it’s clear that Los Angeles will do everything it can to goad Sacramento into playing a physical, Laker brand of ball. If that happens, you can bet O’Neil and his teammates will have another championship ring to add to their already bejeweled fingers.

If, on the other hand, the Kings are mentally tough enough to stick to their smarts, skills and speed even as thugs like O’Neil and Fox call them out, the Kings can bring a championship home to the capital. Let’s hope—hell, let’s pray, with our fingers crossed for luck—that they’re tough enough to play it their own way.