How Important is Keegan Murray vs. the Warriors and How Will He Adjust to the Playoffs?

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 7: Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings looks on during the game against the Golden State Warriors on April 7, 2023 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

It sounds ominous because he’s a rookie, but the play of Keegan Murray will be of immeasurable importance if the Sacramento Kings are to beat the defending champions four times.

The performance of a team’s starting lineup is always critical to winning, but like anything else, that importance swells when postseason basketball arrives.

The Kings starting lineup played 900 minutes together this season, easily the highest amount of any five-man grouping in the NBA. The continuity has allowed for them to grow and develop together as a dangerous unit, particularly on offense.

On the year, they posted a 118.3 offensive rating as a lineup, and post all-star break, Sacramento’s starters were flaunting a 119.7 rating in 18 games together.

Just as everyone knows Sac’s offense is among historic company and is a well-greased machine, it’s equally apparent that their defense—a rating of 116.0, which was good for 24th in the league—is a bit more of a project. 

While on the whole season the Kings starters posted a 2.2 net rating with a pretty poor 116.1 defensive rating, in the post-break stretch, they recorded a putrid 122.4, which sunk their net rating to -2.6 in that timeframe. 

Conversely, their first round opponent is getting hot at the right time on the defensive end. With Donte DiVincenzo in the starting lineup for the majority of the post all-star break period, that starting unit with Kevon Looney at the 5 put up a 93.5 defensive rating.

Worse, given other circumstances, they actually have a starting five that plays both ends of the floor at a high level with an outlook for further improvement should they advance further into the playoffs towards the summer. That’s because Andrew Wiggins is going to be back in the starting lineup.

The lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Looney played a total of 331 minutes together in 27 games this season, and for all lineups of 200 or more minutes played together, their net rating was the highest, and it isn’t even close. With a 128.0 rating on offense and a 106.1 rating on the other end, it worked out to be a 21.9 net rating, which is nearly 7 points better than Cleveland’s starting five in second.

Without foolishly assuming the Kings will become a defensive force the moment playoff basketball begins—which, if it were to miraculously happen, would rid many honest fans of their apprehension regarding their first round opponent—it’s going to be imperative that the league’s best statistical offense not skip a beat.

And zeroing in on the impressive offense of Sacramento’s starting lineup, one player stands out as being a possible x-factor: the rookie.

It will be critical that Keegan Murray offer his typical offensive punch. Unless he’s getting blown by consistently on defense, he’s going to be out there, and above all else, his team is going to need his outside shooting. To have all pistons firing for that historic offense, he has to be the threat he’s been all season.

Of course, it’s the playoffs. That often means a slower game where the focus orients itself more inside than out, especially with the tired legs of mid-April, which threaten only to worsen. But even with that concern, the balanced and wide shot base of Murray, which needs no considerable lift from the lower half, has a great outlook of working overtime, as it were. It’s a shot form built to be sustained.

The real question mark comes from the need to adjust to high-intensity playoff basketball though. The above statement about how vital it is that Murray bring his typical offensive output applies to the rest of the starters as well as Malik Monk off the bench, but due to the status as a rookie, there is less certainty to how Keegan Murray will look in this series.

At the same time, even with the heightened pressure and elevated need for production, Keegan Murray already has a track record of making swift and smooth adjustments in his young NBA career.

To begin, the most remarkable thing about the fourth overall pick out of Iowa was that there was seemingly no adjustment period to professional basketball. Each succeeding phase arose, and Murray never sunk below the rising challenges.

At Summer League, he played like the equivalent of a multi-year vet among a bunch of talent suited for an international league. He not only shot 40.0% from three in Las Vegas, he looked like there was nothing too big for him, always playing within himself, which meant sinking shots when he was on, and finding other ways to impact when he wasn’t.

In preseason, he quickly gained endearment from the fanbase, hitting 7 of 10 from deep in just 2 appearances. And after missing opening night, he wasted no time fitting into his rightful spot in the starting lineup, shooting 39.5% from deep in five contests in October.

And then came the real adversity where he looked lost in November, shooting 27.0% from three and looking, for the first time, like a kid. 

The end of October and into November featured the first trip to the east coast. It was just three games, but they traveled from home to Charlotte to Miami to Orlando before returning to California for a road game against the Warriors. Like most rookies, the adjustment to the rigorous and constant travel of an NBA team needed time to work itself out.

More than that, his grandmother suffered a stroke while in attendance of the game in Charlotte, opening the flood gates for off the court matters effecting the task on the court.

It was understandable, but what first looked like a complete malaise ended up creating one of the largest examples of why there’s so much optimism assigned to Murray. After the month of November ended, he never looked back. In December, it was a complete turnaround as he shot 46.4% from beyond the arc in 14 games while also looking more comfortable overall, including of course on the defensive end

On a smaller scale, there was a period where the late-season intensity pickup looked to be indicating the possibility of a rookie wall. Out of the all-star break, he had five terrific games, but the following six were an abrupt trough. In those six contests in early March, Murray was averaging 6.6 points on 33.3% from the field and 24.1% from three. It was a small sample size, but at the time, it appeared as if it could be the beginning of a significant drop off, which does not often elude rookies.

However, it fortunately did in this case. In the final 14 games of the regular season, Murray was averaging 15.1 points (about 3 more than his season average) on 49.4% from the field and 44.4% from three.

In all instances, it’s been about as quick and as efficient of a series of adjustments for Murray. And there is justifiable hope that there will be another similar phase in this series.

Don’t be surprised if Keegan Murray looks off, out of rhythm, or stiff to start. He may struggle for a few games, but after those few, he’ll likely kick things into a proper gear.

While that could serve a deep run for the Kings, the thing that fans can rest their hat on—and the thing that is actually assured—is that significant strides of improvement in the playoffs will provide a massive boost to the work being put in for an even better sophomore season.

How Keegan Murray plays—more than anything, how he shoots—will, among other things, be a pivotal aspect in deciding this series against the Warriors. His short yet compelling history of making multiple adjustments paint the picture of a positive outlook, either in the short term or, more assuredly, in the long term.

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