The Kings have been the best story in the NBA this season, a long-suffering franchise and fan base making the playoffs for the first time since Sean Paul’s “Temperature” was the hottest song in the nation. The Kings didn’t just sneak into the postseason, they crashed through the door and earned a No.3 seed with a historic offense.
All that does not earn them a trip to the second round. They face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in what is not a great matchup for Sacramento.
Here are three keys to watch for this series, which tips off Saturday.
1) Will the Warriors’ playoff muscle memory kick in?
The Warriors are the defending NBA champions and looked like their vintage selves behind Stephen Curry last June.
The Warriors that played the last 82 games did not look like a title contender.
To believe in the Warriors as a threat to repeat is to believe in their playoff muscle memory kicking in, starting against a dangerous Kings team.
Stephen Curry leads a core of six players who return from last year’s title team, including Andrew Wiggins, who has been out since February dealing with a personal matter. He will come off the bench and have a minutes limit at first, but having him back — plus Gary Payton II, who played the final games of the regular season — will help the defense.
Wiggins and Payton matter because the Warriors have not been a good defensive team this season, although they were seventh in the league after the All-Star break. The offense was up and down, but 10th in the league over the course of 82 (and eighth after the All-Star break). There have been signs the old Warriors are lurking, but the lack of consistency is concerning.
Unless you believe in the Warriors’ playoff muscle memory.
We may find out in Game 1 Saturday if we are dealing with last year’s Warriors or the regular-season version.
2) Can the Warriors get some stops, or is this series a pure shootout?
Both the numbers and eye test suggest the Kings are not going to keep the Warriors from scoring (the Kings had the 24th-ranked defense in the league, which you know causes defense-first coach Mike Brown sleepless nights).
The Kings overcame that defense with the league’s top offense, and they can win this series if it’s a shootout. That makes the core question: Can the Warriors’ defense get enough stops to win the series?
Golden State’s preferred five — Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney — have an elite defensive rating of 106.4 this season. The Warriors can use either Looney or Green on Domantas Sabonis, but they have to devise a plan to deal with the Kings’ devastating dribble handoff game. That lineup also will struggle to deal with the speed and creativity of De'Aaron Fox. Sacramento has shooting everywhere and depth off the bench that will spread Golden State thin.
The Warriors have a defense that has won titles slowing down teams that like to isolate their stars, or run spread pick-and-roll actions with them. That’s not the Kings, whose player and ball movement is much more like the Warriors than the teams they are used to going against. Can the Warriors slow this offense down a little? Golden State is not going to stop Sacramento, the Kings are too good, but if the Warriors can score at will then they only need a few stops to rack up four victories.
3) Are the Warriors’ road woes real?
Sacramento earned home-court advantage and their playoffs-starved fans will make the Golden 1 Center (maybe my favorite arena in the league) a rabid place to play.
The Warriors were 11-30 on the road this season.
If the Warriors are going to advance out of this series, they have to win at least one game in Sacramento. All season long the question has been “Why can’t the Warriors win on the road?” And there was no good answer. Were other teams a little more hyped to go at the defending champs? Sure. But it tied into the inconsistency that has plagued the Warriors all season.
This all ties back to item No.1 on this list — if you believe in the power of the Warriors’ muscle memory, you believe they will go back to winning on the road. Maybe they can, but it will not be easy this series.
PREDICTION: Warriors in six. I wanted to find a reason to pick the Kings, they were the better team this season (and I don’t believe in the Warriors as contenders), but this is just a bad matchup for them. If the Kings can hold home court through the first two games of this series, then things will get very interesting.