SACRAMENTO -- The NBA learning curve is steep. On Wednesday night in Sacramento, the young Kings faced one of the league’s up and coming players and a team fighting for a playoff spot. The atmosphere was foreign and the Kings didn’t respond well in the 116-98 loss to the Bucks.
Milwaukee came out of the gate and bullied the Kings. They threw a young Sacramento team all over the court on their way to a 69 point half. To add to the insult, some of the Bucks veterans even taunted the Sacramento crowd as they shot a stunning 61.4 percent from the field before the intermission.
“I think we got pushed around a little bit in the first half,” rookie Skal Labissiere said. “But they’re trying to make the playoffs still. They’re trying to make the eighth spot. So we have to be a little bit more physical with them and not let them punk us around.”
What the Kings saw from the Bucks is the mindset of a team fighting for a playoff spot. Wednesday night’s contest is what you see in the tail end of a season when one team has something to play for and the other has gone with a youth movement.
“They’re playing physical, they’re not backing down from nobody,” Buddy Hield said. “They have something they’re playing for. Obviously we don’t right now because our season is out of reach.”
Sacramento’s veterans looked at the game as a learning experience for the younger players. They need exposure to this type of game late in the season. They need to see what the expectations will be in a year or two when the Kings hope to be in a similar situation.
“These guys have to go through it, they have to learn it and then hopefully when we make the playoffs in the coming years, they’ll be able to understand that it jumps to another level,” Garrett Temple said. “The first 50 games is one level, the the next 30 is another and that playoff is different animal.”
Building a winner usually comes in stages in the NBA. By the time you sneak into the playoffs, you have already come close once or twice and the first round matchups are usually against seasoned winning clubs.
That is something the Bucks will learn soon enough. With the win, they are now tied for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, but nothing is certain. They currently sit a game out of the eight spot and just 2.5 from falling to ninth and missing the playoffs entirely.
If they squeak in, they will play either the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards in Round 1.
Every game is magnified when you have something at stake late in a season and the Kings were never able to match the intensity of their opponent.
All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show. The star forward dominated every player the Kings threw at him on his way to a 32-point, 13-rebounds, six-assist performance.
“People think I’m crazy to say that - if he gets a 3-point shot, he’ll be the best player in the league,” Temple said of Antetokounmpo. “He can penetrate, he has great court vision, can handle the ball, not to mention he’s 6-11 and a wiry strength that you don’t understand unless you’re play against him. He can literally play 1-5 in this NBA and he has a mismatch at every position.”
Labissiere drew the first look on Antetokounmpo and it didn’t take long to see that the rookie was overmatched by his opponent’s versatility. Willie Cauley-Stein had some success early in the second half, using his length and getting physical with the star forward, but the game was already decided.
It’s a process. With a youth movement comes games like the one against Milwaukee. All you can ask for is effort, which Sacramento has shown. Despite the team’s 3-11 record since the All-Star break, there is progress, especially from the core of first and second year players.
“They’re getting better and better,” Tyreke Evans said. “They’re still learning the game, but as they’re playing, they’re working hard. They’re working hard in practice, getting reps up. It’s going to take time, it’s not going to happen overnight. They’re going to have good games, they’re going to have bad games. You’ve got learn from it.”
Sacramento is in the middle of a seven game stretch against teams tuning up for the playoffs. The schedule doesn’t get any easier Friday when the Kings travel to Oracle Arena to face the Golden State Warriors. It’s another chance to learn on the fly.