Just because the Golden State Warriors, unsurprisingly, open as clear favorites in the first round of the playoffs hardly means the Sacramento Kings are pushovers.
Mike Brown’s squad put up the highest offensive rating ever in 2022-23, its 118.6 points per 100 possessions racing past the rest of the league. DeAaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis were deserving All-Stars, leading a revamped playing rotation rife with shooting, playmaking and overall offensive talent. The Kings’ gaudy +10.0 net rating in the clutch, fourth-best in basketball, is especially subject to whims of single-game shot-making, but still can’t be discounted entirely due to Fox’s development into a mid-range marksman.
Sacramento really is good enough to beat Golden State, earning Northern California bragging rights fans of the NBA’s longest suffering franchise would cling to forever. Who could blame them? The Kings haven’t tasted the playoffs since 2006; the Warriors are vying for a historic fifth title in nine seasons.
Dethroning Steph Curry and the defending champions in the first round would be one of the most significant feats in Sacramento history, no matter how the postseason unfolds from there.
Large as Golden State’s advantage in all-time star power and high-stakes experience looms, though, its biggest ones are rooted in opponent-specific nuance. Steve Kerr’s team is just a bad matchup for the Kings, who lack the all-around versatility and palpable physicality needed to keep the Dubs from reaching their two-way peaks. The most salient factor in this series might just be the Warriors’ ability to stay out of their own way.
As anticipation builds for Saturday’s opener at Golden 1 Center, here’s one major X-factor for Golden State that could decide what’s poised to be the most exciting battle of the first round.
Warriors stringing out Domantas Sabonis
Brown was the architect behind the Warriors’ elite defense a year ago, promising to fix that side of the ball during his debut campaign two hours up I-80 in Sacramento. It never happened. The Kings finished the regular season with a 116.0 defensive rating, 24th overall and an easy worst among Western Conference teams still left standing.
It’s reductive to blame Sabonis most for Sacramento’s lackluster play on that side of the ball. He fights hard, almost single-handedly drives the Kings’ top-six defensive rebounding rate and isn’t a total plodder on the perimeter. But it’s telling nonetheless that Sacramento buckles down defensively with Sabonis on the bench, replaced by the much more mobile Chimezie Metu at de facto center.
The extra dribbles Curry uses here after flying off Kevon Looney’s wide pin and quickly getting a re-screen into side pick-and-roll is all the Dubs need to stretch the Kings past their limit defensively. You can see Klay Thompson pointing at Andrew Wiggins in the weak corner the moment Looney catches on the roll, knowing full well the Warriors have a 4-on-3 situation behind the initial point of attack.
Curry doesn’t need the ball to coax Sabonis into space, leaving Sacramento’s defense especially toothless at the rim—where it allows 69.0% shooting, per Cleaning the Glass, fifth-worst in the league.
Watch Sabonis gesturing toward Curry as Wiggins and Green run a side ball screen, fearful of the greatest shooter ever getting space to launch off a potential pick from Looney. Green catches unencumbered after the Kings put two on the ball, worried about Wiggins attacking Kevin Huerter in a switch, forcing Harrison Barnes to commit to the roll man.
That quick-hitting pass to the weak corner leaves Sabonis with way too much ground to cover for an effective contest, even absent his initial hesitation and if a shooter other than Thompson was ready and waiting.
Fortunately for the Kings, Golden State doesn’t spam simple high ball screens with Curry and Jordan Poole as much as other teams would. The Warriors still prefer the beautiful game of ball and player movement Brown has adapted in Sacramento to historic success.
Rest assured Kerr will pull that trump card when his team needs it most, though. Even with non-shooters and limited finishers like Green and Looney on the floor, Golden State is just too smart, decisive and talented to fail to regularly exploit numbers advantages.
All the Dubs do to combat a high trap on Curry here is “shorting” the pick-and-roll, using Green as a designated release valve to hit Looney
Dogged primary defense from Sacramento’s stopper only matters so much when Golden State can involve Sabonis.
Davion Mitchell does everything he can on this trip to bother Curry. The reigning Finals MVP almost loses his dribble due to Mitchell’s pressure, relegated to retreating and putting his back to the defense before getting back into flow of the offense.
Is there any doubt Curry and Green knew exactly what shot the Dubs would get with Sabonis guarding the screener?
Sabonis will be a workable pressure point for the Dubs in the first round whenever and wherever he is on the floor. Some Golden State lineups may lessen the imminent threat presented by making him defend in space, but Wiggins’ return will go a long way toward ensuring the Warriors always have enough proven shooting and dynamic scoring to create consistently good looks while putting that stress on the Kings’ defense.
Sacramento won’t be able to dare the likes of Anthony Lamb into hoisting a wide-open three in crunch-time when Golden State goes small. Jonathan Kuminga, Donte DiVincenzo or Gary Payton II will be out there with the Dubs’ top-four instead.
Adjustments can change everything we think we know about a postseason matchup. When it comes to Sabonis defensively, though, there may just not be any available that would make the Kings’ star big man less than a series-defining liability.
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