It’s been a fantastic season for the Sacramento Kings. With Coach of the Year favorite Mike Brown at the helm, the Kings snapped an unimaginably long playoff drought, making their first playoff appearance since 2006. For their trouble, Sacramento earned the No. 3 seed in a highly jumbled Western Conference, and the Kings’ prize is a first-round matchup… against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
The best-of-seven showdown begins on Saturday evening, and it is arguably the most interesting battle of the entire first round. Golden State enters as the betting favorite despite the No. 6 seed, and the crowds project to be extremely lively on both sides of Northern California. Now, let’s dive into what is on the agenda that can swing this series one way or the other.
Keys for the Warriors
So, what are the Warriors? Golden State won only 44 games and never seemed to find its full footing this season. For one, the Warriors were virtually unable to win away from San Francisco, posting a hideous 11-30 record on the road. That is a mark that would spell doom for any team under normal circumstances but, with Stephen Curry playing only 56 games and Andrew Wiggins missing more than half of the season, there are rational excuses for at least some of what transpired.
On offense, the Warriors are what they are, in the best possible way. Golden State led the league with 16.6 three-pointers per game, with Klay Thompson (not Steph!) leading the league in triples. Of course, Curry is the straw that stirs the drink, but that pairing is as scary as ever on the perimeter, and the Warriors led the league in assists (29.8 per game) and assist percentage (69.1 percent). Things can spiral while Steph is off the floor, but Golden State might be able to sustain high-level offense given this opponent and relatively positive health luck.
The defensive end is the bigger question, particularly in this setting. Golden State has dominated (and I mean dominated) with its best five players on the court with a +21.9 net rating behind Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney on the floor together. That isn’t realistic for any unit over a large sample, but Golden State isn’t the deepest team and there are questions on whether Wiggins will be the same player from 2022. With Wiggins coming back as a bench player on a minutes restriction to start the series, how Golden State handles the Kings high-powered offense looms large.
Keys for the Kings
The reason the Kings are in the 3-seed is that they just posted the best offensive rating in league history, scoring more than 1.18 points per possession over 82 games. Sacramento’s free-flowing style is dynamic to watch, and the Kings have an interior fulcrum in Sabonis and a perimeter stalwart in De’Aaron Fox who is among the league’s best attacking downhill. The Kings surround that pairing with shooting, headlined by Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray, and as a unit they shot almost 59 percent from two-point range to lead the league. The key for the offense is whether it can adapt to the gauntlet of the postseason against a defense that was formidable enough to win a title less than a year ago. If they are to win this series, they’ll likely need to continue operating at least close to their record-setting pace.
That is because the biggest question about Sacramento’s ability to be a real contender: Defense. Plainly, the Kings are not very good on defense, ranking No. 24 in the league in defensive efficiency and giving up more than 49 percent shooting to opponents. From a personnel standpoint, the Kings don’t have a ton of fantastic options in the backcourt, and Sabonis can be exploited in space. If things slow down, that probably isn’t good for Sacramento, so the Kings need to get things moving and keep it that way. The best way to do so is to keep the Warriors off the offensive boards, meaning they are going to need to be very attentive on long rebounds given Golden State’s propensity to bomb away from deep. A bad defense can mitigate its issues by limiting opportunities, but if they give the Warriors extra looks at the rim, then they only compound their problems on that end.
The Warriors are the fourth-biggest betting favorites in a series without homecourt advantage over the last three decades. That is notable on its own, but the other three situations had odd circumstances, ranging from Michael Jordan coming out of retirement in 1995 to an injury for Luka Doncic in 2022. In short, this is a situation without much precedent as most of the basketball world believes Golden State is far more likely to advance than to have its bid for back-to-back titles evaporate in round one.
With that backdrop, there is an intangible factor in play here that is two-fold. How “real” are the Kings? And how real were the Warriors regular season struggles? Sacramento’s offense is clearly fantastic, but the Kings don’t have the traditional top-10 player in the league to bank on, and they are facing a potent and established defense. The bigger issue is on the other end, with the Kings struggling mightily on defense. That said, Golden State’s full-season offensive metrics don’t fully match the perception and background history of their usually dynamic team, but with a full-season sample of inconsistency, it’s a genuine question of whether they can simply flip the switch once again.
Can the Kings keep Steph and Klay in check? How does Wiggins look? What can Draymond do against Sabonis? These are all valid questions and this is a series that is far more based on feel and history than a traditional matchup. In trying to narrow it down, Wiggins is perhaps the swing player for Golden State, both in this series and potentially beyond, and for Sacramento, shotmaking will be paramount from supporting pieces like Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, and rookie Keegan Murray needing to keep up regular season form throughout the series (not just at home).
The Kings have been better than the Warriors over 82 games this season. The Warriors have enjoyed a dynastic run with the best offensive player (Steph) and the best defensive player (Draymond) to go along with pedigree, experience, and everything else. It will be fascinating at the very least.