Warriors-Kings playoff preview: Rotation questions, defense, X-factor and more

GettyImages 1966056700

SACRAMENTO — Three of the four games between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings happened before December, either prior to or during Draymond Green’s indefinite suspension and preceding Steve Kerr’s rotational overhaul. In the fourth meeting in late January, Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, currently injured for the Kings, combined for 52 minutes that night.

While there remains a level of familiarity and friendly contempt between the organizations and nearby cities, there have actually been subtle shifts within both teams that will have a tangible impact on the mechanics of the matchup. Here’s a preview of Tuesday night’s No. 9 versus No. 10 elimination game, tipping at 7 p.m. Pacific Time in Sacramento.

Biggest Warriors question: What is their center rotation?

Kevon Looney was probably the Warriors’ second-best player in their first round seven-game series win over the Kings last April. He was the primary Domantas Sabonis defender and helped limit him, mucking up the Kings’ potent offensive flow. Looney became the first person since Dwight Howard in 2008 with three 20-rebound games in one series. He broke Sacramento’s spirit with eight offensive rebounds in the third quarter of Game 7.

But times have changed. One of Kerr’s biggest rotation adjustments this season was benching Looney, initially to make Green the primary center and later to elevate Trayce Jackson-Davis into a larger role. Jackson-Davis, a polished rookie, is now the starter and is expected to open that way on Tuesday night, defending Sabonis.

“Sabonis does all his (scoring) damage pretty much within 10-to-15 feet,” Green said. “A lot of it is around the rim and Trayce can affect some of those shots. But it starts with positioning and Sabonis is great at creating angles. You got to make sure you’re good with your positioning against a guy like that. He has all the step-throughs and jump-hooks, double step-throughs that you can imagine. His footwork is great. It will be a tough challenge.”

Looney could be a part of Tuesday’s rotation, especially if Jackson-Davis has some early trouble with Sabonis. There’s already been some discussion within the Warriors where Looney could possibly fit. But don’t expect him to get big minutes. He averaged 30.1 minutes per game in that first-round series. It’d be tough to get him even half of that. And don’t expect Looney to be paired with Green. The Warriors have completely moved away from that combination.

So how does that alter the Warriors’ Sabonis plan? Not much, presumably. They’ll still want to shut down the dribble handoff game and bait Sabonis into being a scorer, no matter if it’s Jackson-Davis, Green or Looney guarding him.

Here’s a look at how they did it last season. Gary Payton II (who will miss the game with a calf injury) is defending De’Aaron Fox. He stays pressed up on Fox, chasing him over the top of a Huerter screen and the Sabonis handoff, knowing that he has Looney sitting in the paint, there to protect against the drive. Sabonis turns, has an ocean of space and decides to shoot the wide open 19-footer, a shot the Warriors are comfortable allowing.

Sabonis had an offseason to stew over a scheme that worked against him. They faced the Warriors in the preseason. He came out shooting the jumper aggressively. In the first three minutes, he made a 17-footer and two 3s, a sign that his counter could be to just continually shoot over the top confidently. In their last regular season game, he took four mid-rangers, perhaps to test it before the Warriors matchup.

“That’s part of what he and Doug (Christie) have been working on, that jump shot from 10 to 12 feet,” Mike Brown said. “That’s one of the things the Warriors gave him last year and he didn’t shoot. So if he’s open, we have confidence in his ability to shoot the ball.”

But anything more than the occasional jumper is not Sabonis. He only averaged 1.1 attempted 3s per game this season, same as the season prior. He still takes the midrange reluctantly —839 of his 1,068 shots (81 percent) were within eight feet of the rim. His answer to the space is often a battering ram downhill drive and a power finish. That’s what Looney defended well in that first-round series, as seen below.

These types of interior clashes against Jackson-Davis and, particularly, Green could decide the game Tuesday night. The Kings have lost two of their biggest offensive weapons. Monk, who averaged 19 points in the first-round series, is out with a sprained MCL. Huerter, lethal in the Sabonis hand-off game, tore his labrum. The need for Sabonis to score has increased. It feels like it can’t just be a 10-point, 10-assist, 16-rebound night.

But it’s about more than Sabonis. Injuries have forced Brown to rearrange his rotation. Keon Ellis is starting and Davion

“They’re top-1o in the league in protecting the paint and bottom-10 in the league in protecting the rim,” Fox said. “That’s their schematics. In the playoffs, it’s a bit more emphasized. But you watch them play, it’s what they do. It’s the way they play defensively. Draymond, Kevon, they like to roam a lot.”

The Kings are not only expecting the Warriors to dare Sabonis to beat them as a scorer, but also help off of Davion Mitchell and Ellis and even Harrison Barnes at times.

“You have to take whatever shot comes your way,” Brown said. “If you turn down open shots, you’re probably going to get a worse shot in that possession. So, for me, if that means we take 30 3s, then we take 30 3s. If we take 50 3s, we take 50 3s. We will have to be OK with it no matter the result.”

Biggest Kings question: Are they better equipped to defend?

During the Kings’ infamous 16-season playoff drought, this is where they finished out of 30 teams in defensive rating: 27, 30, 19, 21, 27, 26, 22, 27, 23, 29, 29, 20, 23, 30, 25, 22. That trend didn’t change in Brown’s first year as coach. Last season, they finished first in offensive rating but 24th in defense, ending the playoff drought by outscoring everyone.

The Kings took a slight step back this season — six seeds worse but only two wins fewer — because their offense suffered a sizable dip. Huerter slumped. Keegan Murray’s 3-point percentage dropped from 41 to 36. They had worse injury luck. Sasha Vezenkov, a promoted offseason signing, hasn’t worked. Brown, in an effort to defend better, prioritized length and activity over shooting with some lineup choices.

It did translate well on the defensive end. They actually finished 14th in defensive rating, per NBA.com, the first time in 18 seasons that they’ve been in the top-half of the NBA.

Out of necessity, it’s actually been even better lately. Without Huerter and Monk, the Kings are starting second-year guard Keon Ellis and playing Davion Mitchell more. Ellis is a long, instinctual perimeter ballhawk, piling up deflections. Mitchell is a bulldog on the ball. Fox just had his best defensive season. Murray bulked up and took a defensive leap on the wing. The Kings actually have the eighth best defensive rating in the NBA their last 15 games: 108.8. They are third in defensive rating since March 1.

There are still weaknesses for the Warriors to exploit. There is still a lack of overall team length. Brown has been obsessed with teaching the Kings to close out on the 3 tighter because they must pack the paint to make up for their lack of rim protection. Sabonis doesn’t block or alter many shots.

Stephen Curry’s clearest path to points could be on the straight line drive to the rim, beating his defender (some combination of Fox, Mitchell, Ellis and Murray over the course of the game) and challenging whoever awaits on the back line. In his legendary 50-point Game 7, Curry actually made 13 shots inside the arc.

If the Warriors use screeners, Brown will surely blitz. Even if they don’t, he may throw selective doubles out to half court. When that happens, Green’s decisiveness and willingness to take quick attack layups and short floaters could be paramount, especially if the nearby help defender is protecting against the lob to Jackson-Davis.

Jonathan Kuminga is also a major factor. He barely played in that first-round series last April. He’s ticketed for somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes on Tuesday night. Kuminga just set a Warriors franchise record for dunks in a season and led the team in paint points. In their last matchup with the Kings, Kuminga had 31 points on 12 of 19 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench.

X-factor: Harrison Barnes against Andrew Wiggins

In that same game that Kuminga lit up the Kings, Harrison Barnes lit up the Warriors, scoring a career-high 39 points on 14 of 24 shooting. He made seven 3s and closed the fourth quarter with repetitive post-up scores against Klay Thompson.

The Kings won’t need 39 (or even 25) from Barnes to have a legit shot against the Warriors, but they’ll need his secondary scoring, rebounding and general effort, especially with Monk and Huerter out. When Barnes has a noticeable impact on the game, the Kings are a different team.

Sounds a lot like the Warriors and Wiggins, another talented wing whose impact tends to fluctuate from high-level to invisible. If either of the two plays significantly better than the other, the equation completely changes.

Notable quote

Green on the familiarity of playing the Kings: “Their coaches will put a great game plan together. Our coaches will put a great game plan together. At a certain point in a series, you know me and I know you. So who is going to make the little plays to win? You know everything I run and I know everything you run. This is obviously not a seven-game series, but I feel like that’s what this game will come down to.”

This is an example of a little mistake the Warriors need to avoid. It came during their last loss to the Kings. To close the third quarter, Kuminga left the hottest shooter in the building to rotate onto an ice cold Kessler Edwards, gifting three points.


Notable stat

8 — Players in Brown’s rotation during a massive game against the Suns this past week. Brown has trimmed it down to a playoff-level minutes distribution and said after practice on Monday he’d be comfortable only playing eight guys. Here is the minute distribution in that game: Murray 43, Sabonis 42, Fox 41, Barnes 41, Ellis 33, Mitchell 20, Trey Lyles 15, Alex Len five.

What could ultimately decide it?

If this game devolves into a one-possession game in crunchtime, both teams should have some concern. The Kings recent 3-6 slide, which put them into this elimination position, includes some gut-punch losses in the final minute.

Murray had a defensive rebound ripped away from him in Boston, leading to an Xavier Tillman game-winning floater. Fox was stripped in the final seconds of that crucial loss to the Suns, punctuating a blown 16-point lead.

But no team committed more costly late-game errors this season than the Warriors. That included a devastating giveaway loss to the Kings back in November, when both Curry and Green committed egregious turnovers in the final minute, allowing the Kings to come from five points down in the final 50 seconds to cap a 24-point comeback.

The Warriors also failed to get a shot off on the final possession of another one-point loss to the Kings and nearly gave away Game 4 of the first-round series last April when Curry called a timeout that the Warriors didn’t have, giving the Kings a technical free throw and an extra possession. Barnes missed a 3 at the buzzer that would’ve put Sacramento up 3-1.

It could come down to another wacky sequence of events in the final minute on Tuesday night.

(Photo of Thompson and Sabonis: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top