Usually when early-season games have a playoff feel, it’s because it’s an intense game between two top-level teams; but it’s still a touch hyperbolic. But to label Tuesday night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings as having a playoff feel was fairly realistic. After the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in the day, the matchup between budding rivals had much larger implications than a November game usually offers: it determined who would advance in the inaugural NBA in-season tournament.
The stage was set clearly: if the Warriors won by 12 or more points, they would advance to the knockout stage. If the Kings won, or lost by 11 or fewer, Sacramento would advance.
There’s already a special air of intensity when these two teams play, given their geographical proximity, their playoff series a year ago, their dueling roles as aging dynasty vs. up-and-comers, and the beef between Draymond Green and Domantas Sabonis. But this added something extra to it.
Golden State came out of the gates up to the task. Steph Curry was dialed in, while Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson were locked in, playing the type of basketball we’ve been hoping to see for a while now. Green and Kevon Looney made life miserable for Sabonis and, thanks to a flurry of threes, the Dubs found themselves up 30-18 fairly quickly … sporting the exact margin of victory they needed to advance.
Sacramento answered with a 10-run, but the Warriors had their own response: Thompson made a trio of free throws with 19 seconds remaining, then Gary Payton II stole the ensuing possession, making a circus floater at the buzzer to give the Dubs a 37-29 lead.
They stretched that into a 12-0 run spanning the second quarter, but it came at a cost: Cory Joseph was on the court to open the quarter, as Chris Paul had gone back to the locker room. He wouldn’t return, as the Dubs would rule him out with lower left leg soreness, and his absence would be felt: without one of the great ball-controllers in league history, the Dubs eventually started to turn the ball over with frightening regularity.
But not before clicking. Wiggins went into 2022 mode in the second quarter, playing with extreme aggression, and the ball started to move beautifully. It was the prettiest Warriors basketball we’ve seen all year as they pushed the lead to 24 points, and even though they ended the frame with a bunch of sloppiness, they still led 72-55 at the break. Things were looking good. They had a small buffer to advance in the tournament, and a big buffer to beat the Kings for the third time this year.
Sacramento, however, was not going to go down quietly in front of their fans. They showed up in the third quarter, and while the Warriors kept answering, the Kings kept answering the answers. Sacramento flirted with single digits, then the Dubs pushed it back to 16 points. Wiggins again attacked relentlessly, at times putting the team on his back in perhaps his best performance of the year.
But the defense was cracking along with the turnovers, and the Kings were living at the free throw line. Danger turned into outright badness when Payton also left the game with an injury, limping off the court and holding the back of his leg. The Kings seized on the momentum, and cut the Dubs’ lead to nine points entering the fourth quarter. Suddenly the Warriors were not only in danger of blowing the in-season tournament advancement, but also the lead.
You can probably see how this story ends.
Whether it was running out of steam, being deflated by the injuries, or simply the Kings finding a gear that the Warriors couldn’t access, everything fully shifted in the fourth quarter. After the Dubs dominated the hustle plays in the first half — Mike Brown told the broadcast team that Golden State had won all seven 50-50 balls — the tide changed entirely. Suddenly the Kings were getting every lose ball, keeping every possession alive, forcing Golden State into bad plays. They got physical and, with a little help from the refs swallowing the whistle when Curry had the ball, the Dubs simply refused to match the physicality. The Warriors were collapsing, which unsurprisingly resulted in a Green technical foul … admittedly a very weak one.
Sasha Vezenkov, who didn’t even play in the first half, started dominating with his silky jumper, and only Moses Moody’s 11 fourth-quarter points kept things from getting out of hand.
But eventually Sacramento would pull ahead, as De’Aaron Fox gave them the lead with 5:46 remaining … their first lead since early in the first quarter. But the Dubs were not letting up that easily. After watching Wiggins and Moody do the same, Curry put the team on his back, and Golden State stormed ahead. With the Dubs up five with just under two minutes remaining, Looney corralled an offensive rebound and was fouled. Suddenly the dream of advancing to the knockout stage was alive.
Looney missed both free throws, and the teams started to trade points, as hopes of advancing were dashed. Now it was all about finding a way to win.
And then things went to the toilet. Malik Monk made a two-for-one three that pulled Sacramento within a single point, and Draymond threw the ball away on the other side. Suddenly Sacramento had a chance to take the lead. After being forced into a timeout, they inbounded the ball and got it to Monk, while Wiggins hounded him with exceptional defense. Wiggins forced Monk into an outrageous shot and … yeah … you guessed it. He made it.
MALIK. CALLED. GAME. pic.twitter.com/soskDnxPTs
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) November 29, 2023
Golden State was out of timeouts, and Curry’s hands turned to butter as he rushed the ball up the court. He managed to get a shot off, but not a good look at all, even by his generous standards.
Somehow a 24-point lead had turned into yet another borderline unbelievable loss.
The Dubs are eliminated from the first in-season tournament, but still play again on Thursday against the LA Clippers. Curry and Wiggins finished with 29 points apiece, with the former having 10 rebounds and the latter nine. Thompson dropped in a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds.