With their backs against the wall, the Kings stunned the defending champions on the strength of De’Aaron Fox’s playmaking, Malik Monk’s firepower and a small-ball lineup.
Win or go home, backs against the wall, no tomorrow were amongst the descriptions of Sacramento’s plight by its coaches and players after dropping three in a row to the Warriors. But while many teams talk the talk but wilt in pressure situations on the floor, the Kings were unfazed by an elimination game on the road, against an opponent with all the experience, all the history, all the momentum on its side.
Davion Mitchell predicted his team would “punch them in the mouth first,” and the Kings did just that, bullying and battling their way to an 8-0 start with elite balance on both sides of the ball, ducking every Golden State counter, sending blow after blow, and finally, delivering a knockout late in the fourth quarter.
At the center of the ring were, as they’ve been all series, De’Aaron Fox, unhampered by his broken finger, and Malik Monk, the dynamo sixth man, pinning the Warriors on the ropes. Each proved yet again that he’s all-but unguardable, knifing into the paint for floaters, taking advantage of switches and cross-matches to get open from mid- and long-range, and drawing whistles on the way to the cup.
The devastating duo combined for 54 points, 15 assists and four steals, vibrating with energy against a lethargic Warriors team that couldn’t flip the switch they’ve become so accustomed to flipping.
“We wanted to hit first, hit second, hit third, hit last, and I think we did a good job of that tonight,” said Fox, who was a plus-20 in his 37 minutes. “Especially with our pace, I feel like we were in control basically the entire game tonight. From start to finish, I feel that this is probably the best game that we’ve played this year.”
With the series shifting back to Golden 1 Center for a winner-take-all Game 7, there’s no shortage of confidence in Sacramento’s corner and no shying away from the brightest of spotlights.
“It’s a big opportunity,” Fox said. “Everybody doesn’t get to experience a Game 7, and not a lot of people get to experience a Game 7 in Sacramento […] It’s going to be rocking.”
“I just know I’m going to go out there and [give] 110 percent, give it my all and continue to do what I’ve been doing; that’s attacking the rim and making plays for my teammates,” Monk added. “I’ll be ready.”
X-Factors: So often, the outcomes of critical playoff games are swayed by role players who deliver their biggest performances, who maximize every opportunity when their team needs them most. With Domantas Sabonis in foul trouble for much of the night, the Kings relied on depth and a small-ball lineup that outpaced and confounded the Warriors.
Inserted to space the floor, Trey Lyles thrived as the backup center with 12 points on 10 shots, nine rebounds and two steals in 27 minutes, during which Sacramento outscored the Warriors by nine.
“We felt going small with the guards we have, they can get downhill, and we can play-make,” said head coach Mike Brown. “Trey gave us that flexibility. For us, we do want to play as quickly as we can, we want to keep pushing the ball. That’s how we played all year. In order to beat teams in the playoffs, we need to play faster.”
Although he was the least experienced player on the floor, Keegan Murray was no less confident in his ability to impact the game, firing away from deep on his way to 15 points, collecting 12 rebounds, and perhaps just as importantly, drawing a pair of charges in a team-high 45 minutes.
And in a system in which any player can be the X-factor on any given night, Kevin Huerter rediscovered his touch from long range, connecting on three triples after making four in the previous five games combined.
“He’s just got to keep shooting the ball,” Brown said. “Making shots, you feel good about that. He’s continued to take them like he did tonight. Give him credit, because there’s a confidence level you have to have to be where he is, and he had it tonight.”
Turning Point: Sacramento led from the opening minute of the second quarter until the final horn, but Golden State trimmed the lead to five with under four minutes to go in the third. In a game-, and perhaps series-defining 40-second sequence, Monk found Fox for a corner three-pointer, blocked Jordan Poole at the rim and then sprinted down the floor to knock down a triple of his own to effectively shut the door on a Warriors comeback attempt.
“They’ve been doubting us all year; they said we weren’t going to be here,” Monk said. “We’re just here to prove everybody wrong.”
Key Stat: In stringing together its most dominant postseason outing, the Kings – the best road team in the West during the regular season – held the decisive edge in nearly every major category, from paint points (44-36) to offensive rebounds (18-11) to fastbreak points (18-9). The team’s 52 bench points more than doubled Golden State’s output (21), with Monk on his own (28) outscoring all Warriors reserves combined.
But the defensive end is where Sacramento dazzled most, holding the run-and-gun Warriors to only 99 points, 37.2 percent from the field and 10-of-32 from long range.
“We never came in just thinking our season would be over tonight,” Fox said. “Everybody believes in each other … We know that we can score with anybody and I think in the postseason, our defense has been better.”