SAN ANTONIO -- The alternative was really not one at all. The Sacramento Kings knew that much going in.
To take the floor at the AT&T Center unprepared, unwilling or unable to at least match the hometown team in spirit was like stepping in front of the train. And to face the defending champion San Antonio Spurs head on without point guard Beno Udrih -- as they had in the first meeting here Nov. 2 and as they did Friday night only made matters worse.
But the element of toughness Kings coach Reggie Theus has been trying to build on recently could only keep the Kings off the tracks until midway through the third quarter, when the Spurs' chugged away en route to a 102-89 win with a burst of brawn and baskets.
With a little less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter and a Tony Parker 3-pointer having put the Spurs up 66-62, Kings center Brad Miller fouled Spurs guard Manu Ginobili hard in keeping him from an easy layup. Ginobili flailed his arms on the way down and even appeared to swing with some intent to catch Miller on his way down. A flagrant foul was assessed to Miller, a technical to Ginobili, all while Ron Artest paced the floor with the look of team enforcer that he so often embraces.
The ear-piercing boos of a sellout crowd of 18,797, though, sparked something within the team that has so much more to play for than its particular opponent Friday night.
Beginning with Parker's shot from beyond the arc, the Spurs finished the quarter on a 16-6 run, the Kings missing five of seven shots in that stretch and never pulling closer than six in the fourth quarter.
"We talked about it at halftime, we talked about it after the game we played hard, we played physical," Theus said. "When it's all said and done, you play hard and you play physical and you don't let somebody come push you around. I thought our guys did a great job of that and contesting the game.
"In the beginning of the season, we couldn't get our guys to take hard fouls, and that's something we have to keep building on."
Yet while the Kings continue to grasp for building blocks, the Spurs had more pressing matters to handle.
They had recently traveled into somewhat new territory, having lost six of seven games before a Thursday win over Chicago and endured a four-game losing streak that was their first in seven years.
And in this Western Conference race that is unprecedented in its high-powered parity, the seven-game slide had taken them from first place to sixth.
The notion, then, of the defending champions overlooking the Kings was nil, even more so because of the history. No one in the Spurs' front office forgets how the Ron Artest-led Kings never backed down during the six-game first-round playoff series in 2006.
So center Tim Duncan scored 21 points and had 13 rebounds, and point guard Parker had 19 points and seven assists, and the one known as "Scissorhands" Bruce Bowen pestered Kings shooting guard Kevin Martin into a 2-for-12 shooting night.
"We always have our little battles going," Martin said. "He's just a tough defender. You have to adjust your game and be more aggressive."