At this point, it’s impossible to consider what playoff basketball may have in store for the Sacramento Kings, but their lack of playoff experience stands out.
And there is a major compounding factor.
Though the Kings have sustained perhaps the very best offense in the league throughout the entirety of the season, the area of focus always seems to boil down to defense. It’s one of those things that arrives in spurts, and in those stints it looks phenomenal, but it’s inconsistent presence has been the biggest source of issues for this 37-26 team sitting one game out of second place.
However, therein lies an advantageous trait. As one can probably tell given the fact they’re more than ten games above .500, a word comes to mind, one often thrown around a lot regarding the Kings: responsiveness.
Just thinking about recent examples, consider the second game in Oklahoma City last week. The Kings came together without all-star De’Aaron Fox, but integral to stunting the never-quit attitude of a young Thunder team on their home floor, Sacramento’s defense whipped into shape in the second half, allowing just 51 points following OKC’s 66-point first half.
Or think about what Mike Brown said of his team after Friday’s win over the Clippers at home, saying that oftentimes they’re “just kind of finding a way.” That is, “finding a way to get a stop here, get a stop there, get a little bit lucky here, a little bit lucky there, and then maybe hit a timely shot or something like that.”
In fact, there’s a good chance that upon reading that, the eye test of simply watching the team backs that notion up. There’s often a timeliness to the defense, that comes around in the most important moments.
Late last week, Brenden Nunes made an excellent point to highlight the difference in defensive ratings from quarter to quarter for this team, which illustrates this point wonderfully. (Note that the rankings have shifted since the tweet was posted, but the uptick in performance in the fourth remains.)
Combine that timely defense with the typical offense, and it’s clear why the Kings have the second best net rating in the fourth period, bested only by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team Sacramento has gone 2-0 against this season in a pair of games that were decided near the end of the contest.
What about them allows this late game success?
“If you want to be great, you have to be greedy,” Mike Brown said a few times last week, highlighting the fact that insofar as coaching goes, only so much can be imparted to a group; at the end of the day, it’s up to the players.
To him, if his guys want to be great, they truly have to want it. And it’s easy to see that team-wide mentality surface through the mouths of his players.
“If we want to continue to win, we have to continue to get better,” Fox said after practice last Thursday, something he says often in some variation.
But looking past the selfless disposition of the head coach, could it be Mike Brown’s imprint from day one that has served his team so well, that has instilled them with this resilient ability to respond and improve?
Back during the beginning of training camp, reporters often asked guys about getting used to Brown’s long practices, and after a practice last week, James Ham asked Malik Monk about it.
Characteristic of Monk, he joked that while it hasn’t been much of an adjustment, “you just have to plan your day a little different,” concluding at the end, with a more serious air, that “it’s working for us.”
Ham aptly followed up, asking if those long practice are advantageous in terms of physical conditioning.
“Yeah, definitely,” Monk promptly replied. “And we can run in the fourth quarter more than other teams. We definitely get out in the fourth a lot … thanks to Mike (Brown).”
The next question for Monk then came from Nunes, who noted the information in his tweet above regarding the defensive ratings from quarter to quarter and asked what might be the reason behind it.
“Being in close games in the fourth all throughout the year,” Monk answered initially. “Just having way more experience (than everyone else) … and we watch a lot of film on the fourth quarter because that’s when the game is won.”
It seems as if Mike Brown has conditioned his team for late game success, and he more or less seconded Monk’s comments this last Friday night.
“To get one to two-possession game experience — and finding ways to get the win — is invaluable because come playoff time, those games are usually a dog fight,” coach Brown said after the home win over the Clippers. “And you’ve got to find ways to win down the stretch, you’ve got to get a stop here, you got to get a stop there, you gotta execute offensively — or at least know where the ball should go during certain times of certain games, especially the last 20 to 35 seconds of a game — and so you like going through these scenarios, you like, obviously, teaching it and/or learning from a win, and at the end of the day, I do truly believe it’s going to benefit us long term.”
But even if backed up by experience and preparation, is opportune responsiveness a sustainable component, especially looking at the playoffs and the greater ambitions of this–and any–team?
Both history and coach Brown would say no.
“It’s hard to play the right way and with a certain level of energy and effort on every possession for 48 minutes,” Brown elucidated after Saturday’s loss to Minnesota. “You want to take a shortcut, it’s natural for most guys. … Just a little embracing (of) the little things for 48 minutes is hard to do, but really, that’s what championship-level teams do. And I think our guys think they’re playing hard, but there’s another level we can still go and we’re going to have to get there in order to have success at the end of the season.”
If the Kings have proven their late-game mettle and are actually physically conditioned and mentally prepared for the final minutes of a game, then isn’t it reasonable to say they have the ability to summon the “energy and effort on every possession for 48 minutes” like champs do?
Perhaps, but the players will have to prove it, and prior playoff experience would sure help a lot.
The lack of post season experience is definitely a concern. Outside of HB, Domas & Huerter they don’t really have that much. Trey & TD have a little bit, and I think Dozier too but don’t think he’ll see the court much anyway. These late season, competitive & physical battles will surely help get them a little ready I hope.