That earlier big eastern swing was supposed to be the easy one.
Remember? The Kings went to Orlando, Miami, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Toronto. The Heat aside, every game was winnable. The Kings (literally) disappeared against Orlando in the fourth quarter, blowing a game where the Magic were ice-cold much of the late afternoon. Philly was the night the Peja deal broke down, and the furthest thing on anyone's mind was Bibby's not-enough explosion and Miller's goose egg. New York was the night the Peja deal went through, and the close win over the moribund Knicks was a footnote at best as a new era of Sactown Hoops was ejected from the womb. Boston's was Artest in Purple #1, a poor offensive effort only magnified by strings of a seeming lack of any motivation by most of the squad. The Kings left the defense in the hotel when visiting the Air Canada Centre, and got smoked in a nasty overtime by Les Raptors.
1-5. I actually dallied with the idea that 5-1 was possible on the trip. Of course, I hadn't known that a major deal - the biggest in the NBA this season, by far - would leave the team a man short twice and with a new gameplan for two others. I didn't know the team planned on quitting against the Magic and not showing up against the Heat. In retrospect, it was probably the strangest Kings road trip I've ever seen.
So don't go thinking I'm going to make any bold predictions this time out, with only one bad team on the docket (Atlanta), two teams that could make the conference finals if everything goes right (Cleveland, New Jersey), a frisky overachiever (Milwaukee) and a team with a guy that can explode for 50+ any given night (Washington).
Atlanta is almost a must-win, especially if the Kings can't beat The LeBrons tonight. Without winning some road games in the next month-and-a-half, the Kings won't make the playoffs. Even if they run the table at ARCO (unlikely, at best), the playoffs can't happen without at least four road victories. For every extra home loss (and the Kings do host Dallas, Phoenix and the Clippers), add another necessary road win.
Here are the remaining road games, then:
Cleveland, Atlanta, Washington, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Indiana, Minnesota, Lakers, Utah, Portland, Golden State, Dallas, San Antonio, Clippers, Denver.
Now, let's rank those in terms of "winnability":
Atlanta, Portland, Golden State, Minnesota, Utah, Denver, Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana, New Jersey, Cleveland, Lakers, Clippers, Dallas, San Antonio.
Okay. So we know the team must win four of these to realistically have a shot at the playoffs, by getting to .500. But there are three real tough home games I'd count as good-chance-of-losing games, too:
Dallas (March 12), Clippers (April 2), Phoenix (April 11).
The Kings have owned the Clippers, but something's got to give eventually. And it looks like Phoenix will be in solid two-seed position, and may rest Nash and try simply to work Amare back in when they come to town. But even if you move those games out of "likely losses," Memphis, NOOCH and the Lakers are ready to move in their places.
What I'm saying is that 8-3 the rest of the way at home is probably a good bet. Lots of winnable games, but several tough ones.
That would mean seven more road wins are necessary for playoff survival. My cursory list above, then, says that Atlanta is a must-win as the easiest foe on the road the rest of the way. Washington looms as that seventh-easiest road victory.
So I'm saying a 2-3 road trip is necessary. A 3-2 trip would be great. A win over Atlanta is mandatory at the least, a win over one of the other squads (Washington and Milwaukee being the most likely) is also important. A win against Cleveland or New Jersey would almost be gravy, unless we drop the Atlanta match and/or both the Milwaukee/Washington games.
The key is that this team wants to control it's own destiny at home. Four of the last five games of the season are in ARCO, with the solitary away trip to Denver on big rest. If sweeping the final four at home (Houston, Phoenix, NOOCH, Seattle)gets the Kings to .500 or better, I think we can feel all right. If that Denver game is also a must-win, you worry. Bigtime.
So, what's it mean for tonight? Win, and relieve some pressure for the rest of the trip. Lose, and look good doing it. Either way, it's not a make-or-break game. So don't freak out tomorrow morning.
(My head hurts. To the lineups.)
PG - Mike Bibby, snubber of the Olympiad
SG - Kevin Martin, Dream Team XIVer
SF - Ron Artest, the Tonya Harding of hoops (anything for a W)
PF - Kenny Thomas, would complain about backing up Elton Brand on the Olympic team
C - Brad Miller, 2008 Olympic gold medalist
PG - Eric Snow
SG - Flip Murray
SF - LeBron James
PF - Drew Gooden
C - Zydrunas Ilgauskas
The line: +3.5 Fair enough, though I doubt Vegas would make the Kings 0.5-point favorite were this game at home. That's how striking the road/home splits are.
Fun bet o' the night: Times LeBron gets booed? I'm thinking zero.
Sideshow most likely to be entertaining: Will Usher be in the stands? I dare say that the Kings have again become a road draw, thanks to the wacky Ron Artest. It's kind of awesome. Kind of.
Best matchup: Donyell Marshall vs. Francisco Garcia. I kid! LBJ vs. Ron-Ron should be fantastic entertainment. Provided Ronnie plays better than he did against Mamba.
Goal tracker update: The Kings are four games below .500 and 2.5 games behind the Lakers for third in the division and eighth in the conference. The Jazz are ahead of the Kings by one game, and Houston trails the Kings by 1.5 games.
The game actually starts rather soon. So, beer up and enjoy the battle! Let's go Kings!