The race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference is hardly a done deal.
The competition will almost certainly linger into April with no clear resolution. This year’s 8 seed in the West will not be a 45- or 48-win team, as we’ve seen in past seasons. It will be a team near the .500 mark, and it’s no sure thing that the Golden State Warriors’ first-round playoff opponent will own as many as 40 wins heading into Game 1 on the third weekend of April.
Yet, while this race is a long way from being settled, make no mistake about one particular point: The drama has certainly witnessed one of its more important twists over the past 10 days.
If the Sacramento Kings fall short of the playoffs, they will look back at this stretch of time as the period in which they lost their grasp on the crazy eight in the West.
The past few nights, the ground has shifted in the race for the West’s last playoff spot.
The Chicago Bulls, on an extended Western road swing, have been playing some of the contenders for that final postseason berth. Earlier in the week, they lost to the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, falling in overtime thanks to a dazzling five-minute period from Gordon Hayward.
Wednesday night, the Kings lost at home to those very same Bulls, who finally got the perimeter shooting from bench players they’ve long needed — not just this season, but over the past several seasons. E’Twaun Moore — filling in for an injured Jimmy Butler — tossed in 24 points thanks to 4-of-5 three-point shooting. The Jazz’s ability to beat Chicago, and the Kings’ subsequent failure against the Bulls, offered one point of separation between the two clubs. Utah — alongside Portland — has carved out a multi-game advantage over the Kings.
One last note about Sacramento’s loss to Chicago: DeMarcus Cousins produced 30 points for Sacramento, but that routinely imposing performance from Boogie wasn’t enough to lift the Kings to the win column.
That detail is instructive, in that it points to the moment in time when Sacramento’s optimism for this season began to wane. With the All-Star break approaching, the Kings have to figure out a way to get their groove back.
It was a Monday, January 25.
If you recall, that was the night when the San Antonio Spurs played the Golden State Warriors on NBA TV. The first meeting of the season between two statistically (and historically) dominant teams — with records to match — represented can’t-miss viewing for basketball diehards. Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to Oracle Arena: The game became a non-event before the fourth quarter even began. Golden State built a 25-point lead and pushed it into the 30s. The “nolo contendere” verdict in Oakland enabled NBA fans and bloggers to shift their attention to another league venue just 82 miles away.
In Sacramento, Boogie was getting DOWN.
DeMarcus Cousins tossed in 56 points agianst the undermanned Charlotte Hornets, who were playing without two starters to begin with on that Monday night. The problem is that Sacramento couldn’t defend Charlotte and Kemba Walker well enough to earn a victory in regulation. When Cousins fouled out in overtime — on a plainly errant call — Sacramento’s offense sagged. Even though three Charlotte players fouled out, enabling the Hornets to score just two points in the first 4:50 of the second overtime stanza, the Kings scored only four. Yes, Charlotte still had a chance to win.
Then this happened:
The fact that Daniels so evidently traveled before releasing his game-winning three (Sacramento missed a game-winning jumper on the game’s last possession) only rubbed more salt into the Kings’ wound, but that’s the worst part of bad calls: Even when they emerge, a team still knows that it could have done so many other things to avoid being in a position where one bad call could ruin everything. If the Kings had merely scored six points in the second overtime period, that bad call and subsequent triple wouldn’t have beaten them.
Alas, it didn’t turn out that way.
Let’s put a finer point on how things have turned so wrong for the Kings, even while Boogie has been so right in everything he has done.
When Sacramento took the court against Charlotte, it had won five straight games. The Kings were finally attaining a measure of long-elusive consistency. Moreover, the next five games on the slate were against the Hornets, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Bucks. Sacramento had good reason to think it could win a majority of those games.
With the Hornets loss (at home) setting exactly the wrong tone for that five-game sequence, the Kings finished 1-4 against it.
The race for the West’s eighth seed is not over, but within the long grind of an 82-game season, we just might have seen the stretch in which Sacramento’s playoff hopes received a mortal wound.
The Kings have to engage in some substantial surgery over the next few months if they want to reverse that outcome.