It’ll be an all-Northern California affair in round one of the playoffs as the third place Sacramento Kings draw the sixth place Golden State Warriors as their opponents.
If one excludes the Kings’ dominance early in the millennium and the Warriors’ dynasty years–which is undeniably hard to ignore–Northern California basketball has not had a ton of recognition outside of Bill Russell coming out of the University of San Francisco way back when. Sure, there was the Run TMC era for Golden State, but it was followed by a terible swoon that was overshadowed only by Sacramento’s 16-year drought.
All of that is a long winded way of trying to show how cool this is for the broader region. But it comes down to basketball, and there’s a lot to talk about in that regard as fans and observers gear up for game one.
One of the immediate things that comes to mind about this matchup is the backup center role.
Of course, in the final eight games of the season, Alex Len was absolutely terrific, integrating into things while helping facilitate production when Sabonis was off the floor. Defensively, he first and foremost puts himself in the right positioning and utilizes excellent fundamentals to execute the way Mike Brown wants him to; displaying nice mobility in the paint and a willingness to go vertical, blocked shots have been a luxurious residual effect. Furthermore, he runs the floor well for his size (7’0″, 250 lbs.) and is a nice partner in the pick-and-roll as an experienced screen setter, a hard roller, and a big outlet for passes and dump offs. Adding to his value, he’s shown to be a pretty good passer, too, not anywhere close to the level of Domantas Sabonis, but cognizant of the right one to make and able to thread some needles.
In all, Alex Len seems like a no-brainer, and had the Clippers lost on Sunday–which would have drawn them as the first round opponent–the following question would not even come up: Does a matchup with the Warriors upend his place as the reserve center?
But here comes Golden State, a team that plays in an up-tempo fashion that relies on player and ball movement, and of course, a team that has a lot of lethal weapons.
Moreover, they are not a team concerned with size, playing the way Mike Brown–Golden State’s “defensive coordinator” just last year–wants his guys to play, which is not relying on size, but rather getting into position early and using one’s body to make shots difficult. After all, Kevon Looney is their biggest guy and as Brown said earlier in the season, Sac’s head coach “can jump higher than Loon.”
The nullification of Alex Len is more than possible. Worse, the exploitation of him could occur, and all because of the specific matchup.
The Kings do not have their center switch, or at least that’s the idea. With the danger Steph Curry brings to be a threat anywhere on the floor, Golden State can force unwanted switches. Obviously, nobody wants Sabonis in those situations, but his IQ and improved lateral quickness give him somewhat of a chance. The same can’t really be said of Alex Len.
On Friday night against the Warriors, Curry forced a switch, drawing Len on him, who had no chance to stay with the savvy guard as he finished with ease at the rim. Credit to Len for not fouling, but his strengths definitely don’t surface when he’s on a smaller player.
In reverse fashion, the potential need for switching at the center position actually gives Chimezie Metu a decent chance to have his number called as the backup 5. Recall that Metu earned his first load of credit from his head coach in the first game against Golden State. In it, after the game looked all but lost after three quarters, Metu’s place as the 5 in the fourth helped mount a near comeback.
“I thought he was a big part in our comeback,” coach Brown said of Metu after that game in October. “He gave us the ability to switch 1 through 5 and he brought a lot of energy to the table. His presence was definitely felt tonight.”
If Metu can do that–if Mike Brown needs him to do that–then there’s a good chance he’ll be assigned the backup 5 duties, for that series at least.
Two things prevent Metu from getting it off the bat. One is simply how well Alex Len has been playing; he’s been too good not to get the initial nod. But the second is that Metu hasn’t been doing himself a lot of favors, often playing outside himself and getting overly ambitious when the ball is in his hands.
At this point, though, everyone will have to wait and see. There are question marks surrounding this whole series and, due to their inexperience, this whole Kings team. People are entitled to their opinions and premonitions, but a lot of this remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, the backup 5 is one of many different components to focus on when considering how the Kings matchup with the defending champions.