With less than a quarter of the season remaining, the Kings are scuffling a bit. After Friday's 123-114 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, they finished their four-game east-coast wing with three straight defeats.
This isn't the script Sacramento had in mind. In a perfect world, the Kings would have slayed the Boston Celtics and 76ers on a back-to-back, and headed home with seven winnable games and a chance to jump into the 2019 postseason.
But the Kings didn’t beat the Sixers, or the Celtics on Thursday or the Washington Wizards a few days earlier. Despite defying expectations all season, the Kings are still two games under the .500 mark and a very distant ninth in the Western Conference standings.
With his team fighting to stay in the race and, maybe even more importantly, trying to avoid a major injury down the stretch, coach Dave Joerger turned to his second unit to play heavy minutes in Philly.
“I thought our second unit tonight was fantastic,” Joerger told reporters after the loss. “I thought we got the pace of the game up and down the court. We didn’t make a lot of shots.”
Marvin Bagley starred in limited minutes, scoring 15 points and grabbing six rebounds. Harry Giles put up numbers as well, hitting the Sixers for 12 points, four rebounds and four assists.
Yogi Ferrell pushed the pace. Corey Brewer continued to agitate and Bogdan Bogdanovic looked more like himself -- even if he still struggled with his shot.
The second unit outscored Philadelphia’s 51-24 on the evening, but it wasn’t enough.
These are your 2018-19 Sacramento Kings. They might have a few stars, but that is something that will truly work itself out down the road. For now, this is a group of young players that can hit you with a big-league counter-punch, and is always in the game until the clock hits zero.
“We’ve got a young crew with good dudes who care about each other,” Joerger said. “We’ve got terrific chemistry. We like each other. We get along and we fight for each other.”
The “fight for each other” line stands out. Maybe the Kings were overmatched in Philly. Heck, the Kings’ starting point guard measured seven inches shorter than Ben Simmons, his All-Star counterpart.
But Sacramento just doesn’t go away. The Kings don’t cash in a game, regardless of the odds.
With 3:38 remaining, the Kings trailed by four points to a team with a 44-25 record, as well as two current All-Stars, one former All-Star and another starter averaging nearly 21 points and eight rebounds per game on the season.
That team, not Sacramento, has been considered "underachieving" this season.
All five Sixers starters played 31 minutes or more. Four of the first-teamers played at least 34.
That isn’t a blowout, it’s a battle against a quality up-and-coming team.
“We’re playing hard, we’re playing the right way, we’re playing together,” Joerger said. “The wins are going to come. Our guys are getting better all the time.”
Coach Joerger explains that Marvin Bagley III is on a minutes restriction.— Kings on NBCS (@NBCSKings) March 16, 2019
"It broke my heart to take him out of the game tonight." pic.twitter.com/YcJhPpmJkT
Unfortunately for Joeger and his band of 20-somethings, the wins haven’t come as of late. In the high-stakes NBA, close just isn’t going to cut it. This isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades.
“We’ve got to win, that’s the most important thing,” Marvin Bagley told reporters on Friday. “We’ve got to win, we’ve got to play hard.”
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The Kings aren’t returning home broken. They still have aspirations of making the playoffs, even if that ship is in the harbor, loading up and almost ready to sail.
Sacramento has winnable games on the schedule. That's encouraging, considering the Kings have gone to the mat against some of the best teams the NBA has to offer and still battled to the finish.
If you’ve watched the Kings play this season, you understand that they have a flair for the dramatic. When the odds are stacked against them, they are usually at their best.
Maybe they don’t make the postseason, but a .500 season is still possible for the first time in nearly 15 years. Either way, the journey of this team is worth taking in each and every night.