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Kevin Durant and Lessons Learned on the NBA’s Easy Road

Kevin Durant may be learning a lesson that LeBron James already taught us, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s June 1, 2017.

There he stood.

Isolated against his muse, Kevin Durant looked LeBron James in the eyes as he dribbled. At center court, as Oracle Arena erupted into a frenzy, Durant knew that five years after James had robbed him of his glory, the only thing separating him from finally wrapping his long, slender fingers around the Larry O’Brien trophy were 78 seconds.

Durant attempted a crossover, but trembling with excitement, he nearly lost control of the ball. He regained it only momentarily before being stripped by LeBron. Still, with the Warriors ahead by 11 points, his final turnover of the game would ultimately become just a meaningless footnote in the throes of Durant’s to this point tragic history.

On the ensuing play, after a Kyrie Irving miss, with arms heavy as lead, Durant’s heart raced faster than Russell Westbrook on a breakaway.

As he crossed halfcourt, with tears streaming down his face, Durant wiped his eyes with his jersey before doubling over.

The game he’d given everything to had finally repaid him.

It took a tap on the back from Andre Iguodala to remind Durant that the game was still going on, and before he knew it, Stephen Curry’s final made three-pointer caused him to raise his arms to the heavens.

The confetti rained and the champagne showered. After winning his first NBA title, Durant would eventually make his way to the podium cradling the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy.

Seemingly a tad nervous, he meekly asked a strange question.

“Can I sit this right here?”

After he’d received approval, Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, nodded appreciatively of the fact that he didn’t have to let his trophy out of his sight.

From that moment forth, he told anyone who’d listen his story.

From nothing, he’d come. A lack of self-confidence and uncertainty of his supremacy, Durant silently and begrudgingly existed in the shadows as an inlier. He watched Kobe Bryant and LeBron James get the adulation he’d longed for and grew weary of the shadows cast over him by Stephen Curry and even Russell Westbrook, his own teammate.

He eventually took his backpack, a pair of Nikes and the enormous chip on his shoulder to Oakland in search of validation and vindication. Now, on this day, 11 months later, he’d found it.

“It was 55 seconds left,” Durant said in 2017.

“I went over to half court and I bent down. I’m like, ’Is this really happening?’ And Draymond was like, ‘Keep playing to the end.’ Andre is like, ‘Keep playing, we have like 50 seconds left.’ And I’m like, ‘Bro, we’re about to win the title…’

“You can call us a super team, but it’s been a lot of super teams that hasn’t worked. We came together and we continued to just believe in each other. We sacrificed, and we’re champions now.”

His voice raised slightly as he finished his thought.

Champion.

It had a nice ring to it.

As Durant looked around the room at some familiar faces and many new ones, he probably thought that this was something he could get used to.

Just one year later, it’d seemed he had.

* * * * * *

History often repeats itself, but nothing is perfect, not even the basketball gods.

Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals was no exception.

The Warriors, despite struggles from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, were improbably leading the desperate Cleveland Cavaliers by three points.

As LeBron James darted into the paint with a minute remaining in a game his team had to find a way to win, Durant stood within an arm’s length of Kevin Love, who was helplessly relegated to floor-spacing duties on the right wing.

Durant watched James put his season in the hands of Tristan Thompson, and when Thompson failed to deliver in the biggest moment, Durant again found the ball in his hands. Again, he was staring James in the eyes. Tired and badly beaten, though, the 33-year-old king was only a remnant of the superhero we’d grown accustomed to witnessing.

As Durant instructed his teammates to clear out and allow the duo to go one-on-one, he got the satisfaction of knowing that LeBron wanted no part of him.

Rodney Hood did James a favor and switched onto Durant. Without hesitation, Durant took one dribble to his left and drilled a three-pointer from downtown Cleveland.

Those final three points weren’t the last ones scored in Game 3, but they were the last ones that mattered.

As Durant clinched Game 3 for his Warriors, he was apathetic. He exhaled and began to slowly walk toward his bench as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green danced around him like a totem pole.

One game later, after completing the sweep, there were no tears of joy. As Durant accepted the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy yet again, he slapped hands with his teammates, but his body language was unmistakable.

Been there, done that.

Somewhere from that time to his visit to the podium shortly thereafter, Durant must have lost track of his MVP trophy. Unlike the year prior, when he carried it around like a loaf of fresh baked bread, this time, he discarded it like an empty eggshell.

As the two-time MVP took his seat, Draymond Green retrieved the trophy and plopped it on the table in front of him. He looked at it, smiled, and used his left hand to slide it away.

“When you experience something for the first time and you do it again, those emotions aren’t going to be there as they were the first time,” Durant said during his press conference.

He touched on a range of topics before providing an answer that was truly insightful.

“Two years in a row MVP. How are you feeling about that?”

“It feels great to go out there and win a championship with these guys,” Durant said.

“I’m just so happy for Nick Young, Quinn Cook, their first championships. It feels great that we can go out there and give an experience to guys that haven’t been here before, just like they did to me last year…

“It feels great that we can do that. Just the brotherhood that we have in that locker room, and just the family atmosphere that we take on the road, not just the players, but support staff and everybody in the organization…

“It feels good to kind of win it for them.”

In that moment, somewhat contrary to what has been said about Durant, he sounded nothing like a player who felt like he needed to win for himself.

Not anymore, anyway.

“Former players and players now that got a lot to say about what I did, they know how I play,” Durant said defiantly.

“They know exactly what I bring. They know. They know. They understand when they get on the court with me or they check up with me. They know what it is.”

Kevin Durant, two-time champion, looked and sounded every bit like someone who had exorcised his demons. On this journey, though, he’s probably realized that there’s a difference—both in public perception and personal satisfaction—in winning with the deck stacked in your favor versus winning in spite of insurmountable odds.

* * * * * *

Six years ago, in Miami, LeBron James’ eyes lit up as he himself cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time.

Coincidentally, it was Kevin Durant who he toppled.

Durant sat in the locker room of the American Airlines Arena and sobbed with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

James, on top of the world, carried his Finals MVP trophy around with him, just like Durant would five years later.

Like a child who’d just met his new puppy for the first time, in Miami, it was Christmas morning. James hugged everyone he knew as he made his way to the podium, and on the way back to the locker room, as he struggled with carrying the heavy hardware, he was asked if he needed a hand.

“Nope, I got it,” James said.

He’d carried all the weight for all these years. It was only fitting he carried the fruit.

The next year, when his Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs to capture back-to-back NBA Championships, James had grown up. No longer an excited child cradling his newfound puppy, he seemed more interested in simply protecting his turf.

Four years later, though, we saw a completely different scene.

With Kyrie Irving by his side, as James became the first Finals MVP to lead his team back from a 3-1 series deficit against these same Warriors, James collapsed to floor at Oracle Arena and cried uncontrollably.

He embraced Irving and told him he loved him and kept repeating aloud that they’d done it, almost as if he himself couldn’t believe that they had.

“I set out a goal, two years when I came back, to bring a championship to this city,” James said in his teary-filled monologue.

“I gave everything that I had. I put my heart, my blood, my sweat, my tears into this game…

“Against all odds.”

When LeBron met with the media after that Game 7, he was asked whether that championship meant more to him than those won in Miami.

“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.

“Just knowing what our city has been through, northeast Ohio has been through… Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it.

“It was for them.”

It took a circuitous journey for LeBron to learn an important lesson: true victory isn’t just a destination that one needs to get to, it’s every bit as much about the route one takes and the terrain one traverses.

On more than one occasion, Durant admitted James to be the only player he’s met that he considered his peer. The two continue to have a relationship that is every bit as friendly and unique as it is competitive and professionally hostile.

Of all NBA players, James is the only one who faced the level of scrutiny he has and mostly lived to fulfill the gargantuan expectations had of him. He can relate to Durant in ways nobody else can, so don’t be surprised if one day, off on the side, Durant asks him if he’d trade the two championships he won for Miami for the one he won for Cleveland.

Despite what James may say publicly, anyone who knows him knows the truth.

* * * * * *

With two championship rings in tow, Durant trails LeBron in the medal count, and since great players measure themselves by hardware, Durant knows he’ll need at least two more rings to be the rightful successor to the king’s throne.

At that point, should the Warriors have achieved their four titles and have done it anywhere nearly as dominantly as they have these past two seasons—they’ve gone 32-6 in the playoffs—his competitive itch may need to be scratched.

No, the Warriors didn’t ruin the NBA, but they did ruin its competitive balance. And while that might be good for ratings, it’s not good for much else, and certainly not for what true greats need more than anything else—real competition.

To a competitor, succeeding in the face of daunting odds is what oxygen is to fire. It’s necessary fuel. And although there’s no shame in succeeding with the deck stacked in your favor, there’s similarly no joy.

Sure, Durant passed the exam. It just happened to be an open-book test to which he had the answers.

When he spoke of the likes of Nick Young and Quinn Cook—those who hadn’t yet been to the mountaintop—one couldn’t help but to wonder whether he thought of those left behind in Oklahoma City.

We now know for sure that LeBron was thinking about those in Cleveland.

Sure, Kevin Durant may have nothing left to prove, but strangely, something about his second championship seemed off.

Deep down inside, he realized that while there are many routes to success, the easiest isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling.

The next time Durant finds himself isolated with LeBron James, hopefully, it’ll be behind closed doors.

And then, without question, James will reveal to him that this is the greatest lesson he’s ever learned.

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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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