The Sacramento Kings are the emergent Jekyll-and-Hyde ballclub in the 2016 NBA.
The team which lost at home to the Philadelphia 76ers not too long ago was then able to roll into Oklahoma City on Monday night and thump the Thunder by 12 points, 116-104.
It’s true that Kevin Durant was out for the Thunder, but you’re not going to find many nights when Russell Westbrook hits just 2 of 15 shots in the second half. That’s what happened on Monday, and as a result, the Kings won the kind of game which can tell a struggling team that it can stay in the arena for all 82 contests. This result can hold a locker room together, imbuing a roster with the belief that it can surmount any challenge.
With Durant out, the Kings had to think that they owned more overall firepower than the Thunder on Monday, meaning that they had to win this game at the offensive end of the floor. Posting 116 points on 45-percent shooting with a plus-13 differential in free-throw makes certainly rates as a quality offensive performance.
DeMarcus Cousins tossed in 33 points and 19 rebounds, while Rajon Rondo handed out 19 dimes to accompany his 13 points and 9 boards. As mercurial as they can be, Cousins and Rondo remain prodigiously skilled players, and that “arrow in the quiver” identity is why Sacramento still has a legitimate shot at the No. 8 playoff seed in the West.
This win, one the Kings probably weren’t expecting when they set out on this road trip to the South Central Plains region, makes them 14-20, which puts them just 1.5 games behind Utah for the 8 seed, and only two games (one in the loss column) behind Houston for the 7 seed. Monday’s win simultaneously washed away the taste of that loss to the Sixers; gave Sacramento another high-value road scalp this season, in addition to a conquest in Toronto a few weeks back; and pushed the Kings closer to a playoff position. A lot was accomplished in this game. The Philadelphia loss could have been an occasion which hijacked the Kings’ season. Every player could have allowed that event to take on more power than it needed to. Instead, the roster has responded the right way. For now, at least, a season is once again defined by hope.
For the Thunder, this loss can be explained away and shrugged off by the Durant injury, but also by the clearly aberrational nature of Westbrook’s shooting performance. He’s just not going to have many second halves in which he hits just 2 of 15 tries.
Yet, for all the reasons — valid ones — the Thunder can offer for their loss, they did allow Sacramento to shoot 39 free throws. They did allow the Kings to shoot over 40 percent from three-point range. They didn’t defend their home floor in the sense of getting a win, but they also failed to defend their home floor in the sense of playing strong defense. A team which had produced a strong month of December after an unconvincing November has lost a measure of its authoritativeness. It could be a blip on the radar screen; Billy Donovan has to make sure this loss doesn’t spill into a wider and more substantial slump.
Beyond the immediate, the Thunder’s loss also carries this effect for one of its chief competitors in the West: The San Antonio Spurs are continuously finding out that they can manage this 82-game season exactly the way they want to.
OKC’s defeat puts the Thunder five games behind the Spurs in the loss column for the No. 2 seed in the West. The Spurs are still perfect at home, so when Oklahoma City unexpectedly drops a game at home, it cedes yet more leverage to the Spurs over the course of the season as a whole. It’s true that the Spurs will have to play Golden State a bunch of times later in the season, but so will OKC. The more games the Thunder drop to the Kings and other subpar opponents, the less they can expect to engage San Antonio in a battle for the No. 2 seed in these months of winter. If San Antonio can carry an eight- or nine-game lead into the All-Star break, Gregg Popovich will not only be able to maintain his method of resting prime starters for whole games; he could give his players even more rest than usual. This will only add to San Antonio’s storehouse of energy when the playoffs begin. The added games off will reduce injury risks. This is a side effect of Oklahoma City losing more ground relative to San Antonio.
From all appearances, Sacramento’s win and Oklahoma City’s loss — both events, not just one or the other — represent important developments in the Western Conference. We’ll just have to see if Monday’s winner can use it as a building block, and if the loser can immediately minimize its potential significance.