Can the Kings fight the Lakers for a playoff spot in the West this year?

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It’s hard to figure out what to make of the Western Conference this year. Yes, the Golden State Warriors appear to be knocked off of their throne now that they lost another Finals… and Kevin Durant. They also will start the season without Klay Thompson, but that doesn’t mean the best conference in the NBA is weak. Teams like the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and New Orleans Pelicans have all added players to their roster in anticipation of a moor wide open west.

Of course, the Sacramento Kings want to be in that race, too. A surprising upstart last season, the Kings finished ninth in the West. But that place belies the reality of how far Sacramento has to go. They were a full nine games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, and they finished two games under .500 in 2018-19.

Last season, Sacramento was in the middle of the pack in terms of both offense and defense, and they didn’t particularly defend the rim all that well. According to Cleaning the Glass, they ranked 25th in at-rim percentage on defense, wiping out the good done by their 8th-best rating against the 3-pointer.

This issue near the hoop also plagued Sacramento on offense. A reasonable 3-point shooting team, the Kings ranked 17th in at-rim percentage last year. This also seemed to negate the good that De’Aaron Fox and the rest of the team did in transition, where they were one of the best running teams in the NBA.

Worryingly, the team also lost some of its best players in terms of on/off numbers. Ben McLemore now plays for the Houston Rockets, and Willie Cauley-Stein is on the Golden State Warriors. Truthfully, Kings fans might not exactly lament the loss of those two players, whose time with the team was largely marked with unfulfilled expectations. More concerning is the reliance Sacramento will have on some of its burgeoning players who have not yet proved themselves to be net positives.

Both Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley will see increased weight put upon their shoulders this year. Bagley was a breakout star, and a potential Rookie of the Year candidate last season for Sacramento. But as it stands now, it’s not clear how the Kings will fill the gaps they need in just one year with largely the same core in place.

Sacramento has done some work to ease the load on its stars, including adding Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph, and Dewayne Dedmon. Those players — coupled with a summer of experience on the part of Bagley and Fox — are where the Kings have laid their hopes for raising the baseline of performance in Sacramento.

This is not to say that the Kings cannot be a playoff team this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder are without Russell Westbrook, and the six seed in last year’s playoffs could very easily miss the postseason in 2019-20. If Sacramento strengthens itself, there might also be a dip in how either the Portland Trail Blazers or the Houston Rockets perform.

But the real competitor when it comes to the playoff picture out west is the Los Angeles Lakers. If we are going to conservatively project that there will be one open playoff spot from last season, it would naturally be the choice of many to choose LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

But health and resiliency is a major factor for L.A., not to mention depth. The players on the Lakers roster outside of James and Davis just flat-out aren’t very good, and as we’ve seen from teams like Utah, Denver, Portland, and San Antonio, depth can often trump superstars when it comes to playoff eligibility.

New head coach Luke Walton shouldn’t have a problem motivating the young players on his team. Before all the LeBron drama, Walton was building something interesting in Los Angeles. He should be able to do the same with perhaps an even better core this time around. Fox is a budding superstar, and with some guidance and defensive concentration, he should be able to lead to some kind of jump in results.

So this is where we land in Northern California: The Kings want to take the next step, and their spunkiness has everyone wishing them well. But they can’t be expected to rely on bad health breaks for their rivals. Walton will need to focus on finding a way for them to finish strong inside and defend at a rate which allows them to leap up into the playoff picture for 2020.

Watch Lakers’ fan drain half-court shot to win $75,000

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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It might have been the loudest the crypto.com Arena was all night.

Between the third and fourth quarters, Lakers fan Jamie Murry of Downey won $75,000 draining a half-court shot — and he got to celebrate with Anthony Davis.

Murry’s celebration is the best part — with Anthony Davis coming out to celebrate with him (and seeming a little shocked by the hug).

One other big shot fell at this game, but Lakers’ fans didn’t like it as much — Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard drained a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

Three things to know: Joel Embiid returns, scores final 11 vs. Hawks

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Joel Embiid returns, scores final 11 vs. Hawks in 76ers win

The 76ers went 3-1 with Joel Embiid sidelined by a left mid-foot sprain, but they are so much more a dangerous team with him.

Embiid scored the 76ers’ final 11 points of the game against the Hawks, including the go-ahead 10-foot jumper with 18.6 seconds left, to cap a 30-point night and lift the Sixers past the Hawks 104-101.

Embiid was making critical defensive plays down the stretch as well.

Embiid finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks. That’s five straight 30+ point games for Embiid, who picked up right where he left off before the injury.

Well, not exactly pick up at the start as Embiid was 1-of-7 shooting to open the game, and he wasn’t the only Sixers rusty at the start. Embiid seemed focused on sharing the ball early but settled into an offensive balance as the game went on. Philly was saved by a solid defensive night.

The 76ers continue to pick up wins with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey out, which is a good sign going forward.

That’s three-straight losses for the Hawks, a loss that stings because they should have been able to dominate the shorthanded 76ers backcourt and get the win.

2) Karl-Anthony Towns goes down with concerning leg injury

Let’s hope the optimistic report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is right and this isn’t as severe as it looked. Because it looked bad.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony simply was pushing off to run back upcourt when he fell to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf.

Towns was helped back to the locker room and did not return, with the Timberwolves officially saying he was out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A calf strain would be the best possible outcome. An MRI Monday will tell us more.

Towns’ stats are down this season as he adjusts to the odd fit of playing next to Rudy Gobert, but he is still averaging 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.

The Wizards got a monster night from Kristaps Porzingis — a career-high 41 points — on their way to a 142-127 victory. When Porzingis is on this Washington team is tough to beat.

3) Big shots fall at Lakers’ game

Two big shots defined the night at the crypto.com arena Monday.

First, Lakers fan Jamie Murry of Downey won $75,000 with a half-court shot — and he got to celebrate with Anthony Davis.

The second one hurt the Lakers more. Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard drained a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

The Lakers got lost in the scramble. On the initial action, Russell Westbrook doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner, which left the screen setter Myles Turner open at the top for a clean look at a 3 — but he was short and came off the front of the rim. Tyrese Haliburton out-hustled everyone to the rebound and tried to create his own shot but saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West.

The Lakers had won 5-of-6 against a soft part of the schedule but that is about to change and over the next few weeks we will get a sense of where this 7-12 team really stands.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.