The Sacramento Kings walked into tonights matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder just 3.5 games back from the Memphis Grizzlies and the 8-seed in the Western Conference playoff race. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the hottest teams in basketball, and hours before tipoff the Kings announced that De’Aaron Fox was out with an abdominal injury he aggravated in Tuesdays 112-94 win over the Warriors.
The Kings got off to a mediocre start that involved some timely shots by Nemanja Bjelica, but he gave the Thunder a few baskets right back with underwhelming defense. Harry Giles continued to play with the right energy on defense, and high IQ on offense making smart plays and taking shots the Thunder gave him without forcing it. Neither team could get any separation in the first quarter, but the Thunder gave the Kings plenty of opportunities. Bogdan Bogdanovic, in particular, missed several open shots that really could’ve given the Kings a nice cushion for the bench. Bogi’s lack of production was an issue all night.
Fortunately for the Kings, their bench unit didn’t need a cushion. Kent Bazemore has been really good for a while now, but his run in the 2nd quarter might have been his best since the Kings traded for him. He was finishing through contact inside, and made several smart passes to set up his teammates for easy buckets. Alex Len was the recipient of a few of those Bazemore assists, contributing with 7 first half points of his own. Len had a solid night overall.
On the back of Bazemore, the Kings bench extended the lead to double digits, but that quickly evaporated when Kent checked out and the starters checked in.
With just a few minutes left in the half and the Thunder surging, Buddy Hield caught fire and drilled several demoralizing threes to push back against the Thunder run and keep the Kings on top. Bogdanovic finally made a three of his own at the 2nd quarter buzzer to give the Kings an 11-point lead heading into halftime. Without De’Aaron Fox, the Kings couldn’t have asked for a better start than this.
Harry Giles picked up his 4th foul with about 9 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, forcing Luke Walton to sub in Alex Len earlier than he probably wanted to. The Kings’ offense kept rolling, though. Nemanja Bjelica knocked down a deep three behind an Alex Len pick that forced Billy Donovan to call a timeout. Bjelica quickly hit another three after play resumed, giving the Kings their biggest lead thus far. The only thing going wrong for the Kings midway through the 3rd quarter is the lack of production from Cory Joseph, and more importantly — Bogdan Bogdanovic. A lot more things went wrong from here.
I’m not one to blame officiating, but the game took a bad turn towards the end of the 3rd quarter when a few different 50/50 calls didn’t go the Kings’ way. Sacramento made it worse with poor defense and sloppy offense, and the meltdown was officially on.
At one point while everything was going from bad to worse, Walton benched Hield for making a poor entry pass to Giles. Buddy wasn’t happy about it, and I’m going to mentally file that moment away for the offseason. This is not the first time Walton has benched Hield for something similar.
The Thunder were down 17 at one point, and this huge run cut the deficit to 1 heading into the 4th quarter.
And the 4th quarter didn’t start any better. The Kings committed so many quick fouls that the Thunder were in the bonus with nearly 10 minutes left in the game.
With all the momentum pushing OKC, the Kings were pretty lucky to trade baskets for a majority of the 4th as the lead bounced between both teams. The Kings looked like a squad fighting for their lives, but couldn’t execute anything offensively. All of their points felt like desperation prayers as the Thunder came down and hit casual threes and dunks.
The Kings couldn’t survive on miracle baskets forever, and the Thunder eventually secured a modest lead and cruised to victory. Thunder 112, Kings 108.
That was a gut punch. On one hand, the Kings had no business defeating the Thunder without De’Aaron Fox. On the other hand, the good guys had a 17-point lead in the 3rd quarter and nearly pulled off a huge win that would’ve made the playoff race real interesting, and instead they melted down and gave it away.
The Kings have no time to dwell on it, though. They’ll be flying to Memphis tonight in anticipation of tomorrow’s huge matchup with the Grizzlies. Win, and the Kings take another major step towards relevancy. Lose, and the season might be over.