SACRAMENTO -- The Philadelphia 76ers walked into Golden 1 Center on Thursday night and knocked the Kings to the floor with a heavy right hook.
On multiple occasions, the Kings got back up off the canvas. They would hit the Sixers with a smattering of body blows, but they never seemed to see the hook coming and eventually, Philly landed the knockout blow and came away with the 125-108 win.
This is what the next 20 games are going to be like for the Kings. They are going to face one major challenge after another and if they don’t learn how to match their opponents' intensity, they are going to end up dazed and out of the playoff chase.
“Teams are fighting for position and fighting to get in,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “So everybody is playing with more of a sense of urgency. You kind of feel it tighten up a little bit.”
It starts this weekend when the Kings play a back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers and the Toronto Raptors. The Blazers made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season and are desperate for wins. The Raptors are the reigning NBA champs.
‘“In this league, you can’t relax -- that’s what I learned, there’s no space to relax,” guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “All the teams and all the players are here for a reason, and everyone is ready to step up and have a big night.”
That is the attitude the Kings need. No one is going to hand them a win down the stretch. If they want to snap the franchise’s 13-year postseason drought, it will have to be on merit.
The Kings were in a similar dilemma last year. With 20 games remaining in the 2018-19 season, the team sat at 31-31. They trailed the San Antonio Spurs by just two games and the Los Angeles Clippers by three as they entered the stretch run.
Sacramento struggled, going 8-12 to finish 39-43. San Antonio caught fire, winning 15 of the final 20 to go 48-34. LA went 14-6, finishing with an identical 48-34 record.
After playing extremely well for most of the season, the Kings ended the year nine games out of eighth place in the Western Conference standings.
While their record isn’t as good as it was at the same point last season, the Kings have been trending upwards. They’ve won 12 of their previous 18 games after the loss to the 76ers, and they're playing solid basketball.
“I can tell we’re playing better, honestly, in this time of the season,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t remember exactly what was the record, but in general, we’re playing better basketball. Tonight was the first game that we didn’t execute our plan, we didn’t play the way we wanted.”
Sacramento currently trails Memphis by four games in the Western Conference standings, but the Grizzlies have a very difficult final 20 games. They have one of the most difficult remaining strengths of schedules in the league (.558 against), and the Kings also have a three-games-to-one advantage in the season series.
Portland is a half-game above the Kings in the standings and a two-games-to-one lead in the season series. The Blazers play the Phoenix Suns on Friday before flying home to face the Kings on Saturday. The Blazers have a slightly easier strength of schedule than the Kings down the stretch, but not by much.
The Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans are still in the discussion as well, as four teams are within five games of the Grizzlies for the West's final playoff spot.
If the Kings have any hopes of staying alive in the chase, they need to come out and be the aggressor against both Portland and Toronto this weekend. The time for talking is over. They either start winning games or start prepping for another NBA Draft Lottery.
“Ain’t nothing to say, it’s all do,” Harry Giles said. “So just go out there and compete and play hard. We’ve just got to bring it the whole game.”