SACRAMENTO -- Sometimes it comes down to one play. One loose ball. One offensive rebound. One foul call. One baseline jumper over the outstretched arms of a defender.
The Kings have had every one of these bounces go the wrong over the last two weeks.
In Denver, it was Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic with a tip-in over Willie Cauley-Stein. Against the Warriors, Buddy Hield came up short on a 12-footer that would have tied the game late. De’Aaron Fox had an opportunity to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in regulation, but failed to get a shot off against Eric Bledsoe.
On Wednesday night against the Boston Celtics, it was a nine-foot runner by Gordon Hayward over the outstretched arms of Hield that proved the difference. Harrison Barnes got off a 3-pointer as time expired, but it wasn’t close, and the Kings lost 111-109.
“The biggest thing for us it that we’re trying to make the playoffs, we’ve got to get these wins,” Barnes said. “There is something to be learned from these close games, but at the end of the day, we have to figure out a way to get over the hump.”
Four losses over an eight-game stretch against four of the best teams in the league by a total of seven points. That might be the difference between the Kings snapping a 12-year playoff drought, and once again ending the season after 82 games.
“If you would have said coming into this year that we would have the record we would have and that [we would] be playing the Celtics, the Nuggets, the Warriors down to the wire, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” coach Dave Joerger said on Wednesday. “We’re playing hard. We’re playing together. The guys like each other. I feel bad that we’re not getting the result in this night that we’d like, but I’m very positive with them.”
It’s sounds like an overused excuse, but there is a reason why the Kings continue to come up short. They are young and inexperienced. They are taking their lumps like so many teams before them, although this stretch seems particularly cruel.
“The only way you can practice them is really in the game, so it’s just good that we’re in a spot to make plays to win the game,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “In the past, it was not like that. We’re coming down to the last possessions and those are key possessions and we’re executing.”
Cauley-Stein has seen plenty of losing through his four seasons in Sacramento. To see his team compete this way and be in games is a welcomed sight.
After going just 92-154 over his first three seasons with the club, Cauley-Stein is playing meaningful basketball in the month of March for the first time. The losses hurt, but he appears to have perspective on where the Kings are and where they’ve come from.
“It hasn’t been fast,” Cauley-Stein said when asked about the Kings improvement this season. “I’ve been here through some s---. This right now is a good time. Coming from the bottom to now, it’s just like, man, it’s fun. It’s just fun to see where we were and see where they’ve changed it to and see where we’re they’re still going. It’s big time.”
With the loss to the Celtics, the Kings fell back to 32-32 on the season. They trail the San Antonio Spurs by four games -- but just three in the loss column -- with 18 games remaining.
Sacramento has the standings tiebreaker, one more game left against San Antonio on the schedule. There is still time to make a move, but the Kings need to start winning.
“This league is crazy and you never know what can happen,” Fox said. “Anybody can go on a run - I think the Spurs won like four or five in a row. If we string that together and they drop a couple then it’s a different race.”
The Kings hit the road for a four-game trip to the east coast beginning with a Saturday matinee in New York against the Knicks. They’ll play the Washington Wizards, Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in a stretch that may decide the fate of their season.
Close losses aren’t going to cut it from here on out.