The Western Conference’s third-seeded Sacramento Kings and sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors meet in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. The two franchises have never met before in the postseason.
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How they got here
Sacramento Kings (48-34)
After the Kings traded rising star Tyrese Haliburton last season to pair All-Star center Domantas Sabonis with lightning-quick point guard De’Aaron Fox, general manager Monte McNair went to work on the rest of his rotation, targeting shooters to space the floor around his pick-and-roll combination. He surprised most prognosticators, drafting Keegan Murray with the No. 4 overall pick. McNair traded a first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Kevin Huerter and signed Malik Monk away from the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency.
It did not take long for them to make their mark. Huerter made 11 of 17 3-point attempts in his first two games, shot better than 50% from distance for the first month and never fell below 40%. Murray earned a starting job two games into his career and made more 3s than any rookie in league history. Monk played his way into the fringes of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, scoring 21.8 points per 36 minutes off the bench.
The spacing all three provided allowed Fox and Sabonis to play their way into the All-NBA conversation, leaps not many saw coming this far into their careers. Fox averaged a 25-4-6 on career-best shooting efficiency (59.9 true shooting percentage). Sabonis added a 19-12-7 on 61.5% shooting from the field.
The vibes reverberated down the roster, and the result was a 118.6 offensive rating that ranks as the highest in NBA history. The Kings lost their first four games, won 10 of their next 12 games and staked their claim as a serious challenger in the West, steadily marching to 48 wins and their first playoff bid since 2006.
Golden State Warriors (44-38)
The Warriors operated in reverse. They entered the season as the defending champions, winners of four of the league’s past seven titles, but lost key contributors Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica to free agency. The diminishing returns were such that general manager Bob Myers traded recent No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman to reacquire Payton, knowing full well the 30-year-old had trouble staying on the floor.
Still, Golden State boasted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, three future Hall of Famers who each have as much championship experience as LeBron James. They also returned Andrew Wiggins, a 2022 All-Star who served as their second-best player on last year’s title run, and newly minted $140 million man Jordan Poole, a 23-year-old whose talent is outweighed only by his unbridled confidence.
About that. Green slugged Poole in the face during the preseason, earning himself a leave of absence and threatening to fracture the fabric of the league’s most stable team. The Warriors faltered from the start. Curry, Thompson and Green are all in their mid-30s, and it showed at various points throughout the season. Thompson made a league-leading 300 triples this season, but he still carries his two lost seasons to surgery. Green moves as if he carries them, too, and Curry missed 26 games to shoulder and leg injuries.
The 28-year-old Wiggins was not immune to circumstances beyond his control, either. An adductor injury cost him a month, and his father’s reported medical issues kept him from the team for the final 25 games. He is expected back for the playoffs, and that could vault the Warriors back into title contention, especially since Payton has also returned and free-agent acquisition Donte DiVincenzo has established his footing.
The Warriors were 29-29 at the All-Star break, owners of a negligible net rating and sitting in ninth place out West. Urgency forced them to finish strong enough to earn a guaranteed playoff berth against a team that just ended a 16-year playoff drought, and just about everyone believes there is another gear reserved for the playoffs.
The sobering reality for Sacramento is this: When Curry, Thompson, Green and Wiggins all share the court, as they will in this series, they still outscore everyone by 12 points per 100 possessions.
Head to head
The Warriors won their regular season series with the Kings, 3-1.
Three of those meetings appeared on the schedule before mid-November, and the fourth came in the penultimate game of the season, when Sacramento had the No. 3 seed locked up and rested its stars.
The three early meetings were decided in the aggregate by a single point. Both teams posted offensive ratings on par with bottom-10 outfits against each other before climbing into the top 10 on the season.
Curry was absurd in those matchups, averaging 35.7 points on 59/52/94 splits over the three games. Wiggins was also integral to Golden State’s success against Sacramento, adding 25 points per game on 55.6% shooting from the field. The Kings did an admirable job keeping the rest of the Warriors in check.
Fox countered Curry with an average of 25.3 points on 52/33/77 splits in their three games against each other. Statistically, Sabonis was also a beast, averaging a 21-17-6 on 52/40/82 splits, but Golden State outscored Sacramento by 36 points in the 90 minutes he was on the court against the Warriors this season.
The Kings created 48 open or wide-open 3-pointers per game in their first three outings against the Warriors this season, but Golden State made a total of two more triples on its 16 fewer quality looks. The home team won each of its meaningful meetings this season, as did the team that shot better from 3.
The quintet of Fox, Sabonis, Huerter, Murray and Harrison Barnes closed Sacramento’s sole victory against Golden State and posted the team’s best fourth-quarter net rating among high-volume lineups (+16.5 in 100 minutes together). The Kings have also found success with Monk or Davion Mitchell in place of Murray, and they may ride one or the other if either is feeling himself or the rookie feels the weight of these playoffs.
Golden State Warriors
We know Curry, Thompson, Green and Wiggins will be on the floor when it matters, so long as they are healthy and able. The Warriors have searched for a fifth all season. Kevon Looney‘s size and offensive limitations may not help against Sacramento’s spacing. Poole is unreliable. They reacquired Payton to run back last season’s playoff success, but he has played just seven games for them since returning from a core muscle injury. Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and Anthony Lamb are inexperienced in the playoffs.
DiVincenzo was Golden State’s chosen fifth option in free agency, and he has earned that right, averaging 11 points (46/41/81 splits), 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 28.2 minutes a game over the past three months. Only, he has played seven meaningful possessions with the Warriors’ four stars all season.
Matchup to watch
Sabonis unlocked a Kings offense designed by former Warriors assistant Mike Brown to be the most prolific in NBA history. He is the gravity around which Sacramento’s shooters orbit, whether he is running pick and rolls with Fox or operating out of the high post, as roughly five of his seven assists a game yield 3-pointers.
For as often (and as well) as Looney performed defensively against Sabonis this season, the task of disrupting Sabonis’ impact will fall on Green, arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation. Green is a step slower than his prime, but he is every bit as intelligent and irritating as he has ever been.
Sabonis is strong, too, and collected, so it will be fascinating to see just how far Green is willing to push the limits of officiating, especially if Sacramento’s big man performs well enough to frustrate the 33-year-old.
Green played half as many minutes as Looney defending Sabonis during the regular season, according to the NBA’s tracking data, but he held Sabonis to four points on a single shot, as the Kings’ offense slowed to the equivalent of 83.5 points per 100 possessions — a nightmarish result wrapped in a limited sample size. Green has given Sabonis similar issues in the past, and if he can continue making life difficult for the fulcrum of Sacramento’s offense, the Kings’ long-awaited return to the playoffs could come to a swift end.
Golden State Warriors (-300)
Sacramento Kings (+230)
Warriors in seven.
Source: Yahoo Sports