This may be the last game ever played between Northern California rivals. The Kings are likely to become the Seattle Sonics before their next meeting with this Warriors squad and it sucks, at least for me, that this might have to be the way I remember the rivalry going. In the Warriors best season in years, they went 1-3 and lost the final match-up at home to a far inferior Sacramento team. But despite my disappointment, this might be the most important way to classify this Warriors loss. There’s definitely another more relevant to this season: A missed opportunity.
Essentially, that’s what this game was. Throughout a season with many highs and lows, the Warriors have blown as many opportunities as they have capitalized on. Such is the life of a middling playoff team. After an impressive win against the Lakers put Golden State on an emotional high, they saw that energy come crashing down against a team that has now taken advantage of that type of letdown more than once. The Sacramento Kings, owners of just one road win in the Western Conference prior to tonight, wrapped up the season series 3-1, joining Memphis (3-0), Denver (3-1) and Houston (3-1) as the only teams to defeat the Warriors that many times.
In the Warriors first match-up with the Kings, they came into Sacramento off a big road victory against the Los Angles Clippers. The Warriors went on to lose a close one, 92-94. Their next visit to the capitol resulted in another close loss, 127-131 after entering the game having won 14 of 18 and 7 of 8, including 6 of 7 on the previous road trip.
What’s funny, though, is this is probably less about energy and motivation than it is play style. Among those losses in that 18-game stretch, two more came to another relatively terrible team, the Orlando Magic. The reason for this is that, at the time, the Magic played a large, bruising front court of Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic. These are the types of teams the Warriors have had the most trouble with, and you start to see a trend. Sacramento starts has DeMarcus Cousins and an assortment of other physical post-players. I mentioned Memphis earlier. You probably don’t need reminded of the Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol tandem. Even the Lakers have sort have had the Warriors number, as Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have both managed to be healthy for each match-up with Golden State.
Outside of the very best teams in the league, these (with the exclusion of Houston) are the teams the Warriors have struggled most against. Against the 4 teams I mentioned, the Warriors have managed to go 2-10. Funnily enough, they’re 3-5 against Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. So clearly, big front lines present a problem to the Warriors, even with Bogut on the court. He’s participated in 6 of the games against the four teams, and in them, Golden State has gone just 2-4. So having him healthy helps, but still doesn’t solve all the issues.
The real problem here is that the Warriors, for all their effort to change the culture, are still not a physical team. They don’t commit a lot of strong fouls, they don’t box out well, and their players don’t respond well to having defensive players invade their space. This has been a glaring weakness all year, and with Bogut at his personal best this season, physically, this loss sort of confirms that the issues there aren’t solved just because he’s healthy.
I try to put my finger on why they seem to play so terrible against physical teams, and my answer always comes back to the teams’ two best players, as opposed to anyone else. David Lee does not box out. He’s done a better job at times during this season than he has in previous ones, but it’s still a poor habit he’s yet to correct. Time and again, opposing bigs interested enough in following missed shots can be seen going right around Lee for better rebounding position. It shows up a bit in the stats, where Lee averages just 8.5 rebounds per game against the Kings, but it really doesn’t do his failure to put a body on someone justice. For all his rebounding ability, he often gives every single board back in games where the opponents are big and strong enough to compete with him. He has innate sense to where the ball is going to be and does a great job grabbing rebounds, but he needs to make that extra effort that is still missing, or match-ups against big, active teams will continue to hurt the Warriors.
But that’s not the only reason the Warriors have been troubled by the Kings. Stephen Curry has struggled with their physicality, too. While the Sacramento guards are essentially terrible at guarding bigger stronger guards/wings who attack the rim, their quickness and ability make them capable of bothering Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Want proof? Curry is shooting just 32.4% from the field in 4 games against the Kings, to go with 4 turnovers a game. In 3 of the match-ups with the Kings, he’s shot 3-15, 3-11, and 5-18. If not for two late conceded layups in the tonight’s game, he may have ended up nearly as bad or worse. Curry’s got to do something about his weakness attacking aggressive defenses. Letting Toney Douglas and Isaiah Thomas get the better of you is unacceptable the first time, let alone a second.
But he’s not alone. Thompson has been equally as terrible, shooting just 30.4% against the NorCal rival. Tonight’s awful performance (1-13) was an odd finish to a month that’s been especially good to Klay as a shooter. He also struggled to create space, while getting to the free throw line just once (coming off a defensive 3-seconds technical).
All of this, combined with the Warriors propensity to allow wide open 3-point attempts (Thomas hit 7 of 12) caused the Warriors to blow a chance to build a 2-game lead over the Houston Rockets for the 6-seed. For the Warriors, this could prove extremely important down the stretch, as the Rockets, by way of their 3-1 season series advantage, own the tie-breaker. Meaning the potential difference between facing the current 3-seed, the Los Angeles Clippers (who the Warriors are 3-1 against), or the Oklahoma City Thunder. A truly huge swing for a team looking to pull an upset in the first round.
For me, though, that’s not even what makes my blood boil most. Blowing what could potentially be a pivotal game against a poor team sucks. But more than anything, I don’t like seeing the Warriors lose to the Kings. Specifically, I don’t like seeing these Warriors (who are supposed to be better) lose to these Kings. With them likely moving to Seattle for next season, this could be the last time they play each other. If it is, the Kings now own the final bragging rights, both on the season and in the very last match-up. Goodnight.