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Kings give Grizzlies all they can handle in elimination game

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The Kings' attempt to limp into the 2020-21 postseason is officially over. Facing elimination Thursday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, head coach Luke Walton likely thought his team would lose by 30 when the injury report came out earlier in the day.

De’Aaron Fox (health and safety) OUT. Tyrese Haliburton (hyperextended left knee) OUT. Marvin Bagley (groin strain) OUT. Harrison Barnes (left adductor) OUT. 

That is four of the Kings’ top six players. When starting center Richaun Holmes exited the game in the second quarter with a sore knee, Walton had no choice but to throw everything he had left at the Grizzlies.

Delon Wright and Buddy Hield have developed chemistry with Fox and Haliburton out, so Walton was able to rely on this pair early. But when the game was on the line in the third and fourth quarters, it was a mixed bag of players fighting to stay in the NBA that Walton was forced to turn to.

Justin James, Chimezie Metu, Louis King, and Terrence Davis all played at least half of the minutes in the fourth quarter of the most important game in the last 15 years for Sacramento. Damian Jones played meaningful second-half minutes as well.

James was taken with the 40th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and has played just 253 minutes this season coming into Thursday.

Metu spent most of the season as a two-way player for the Kings and missed major time with a broken wrist. After working on a pair of 10-day contracts, Damian Jones earned a roster spot with the Kings on April 27. King signed a two-way contract with Sacramento on April 30, filling the roster spot of Metu when he earned a regular contract with the Kings on the same day as Jones.

 

Davis joined the Kings at the deadline in a trade with the Toronto Raptors. The 23-year-old went undrafted out of Ole' Miss in the 2019 NBA Draft but has made himself into a very valuable piece for the Kings.

Despite the lack of experience and depth, Walton’s squad led by as many as eight points in the fourth against a solid, playoff-bound Grizzlies squad. It took a 12-0 run in the final 3:08 for Memphis to pull out the 116-110 win.

“We’ve been fighting, we just came up short,” Wright said. “I think we did a good job of just sticking together.”

The NBA is a next-man-up league. For the Kings, it’s become a next man, after next man, after next man situation. The fact that it took 70 games in a 72 game season to eliminate them from the playoffs is a testament to everyone involved.

“It was mainly just the mentality of just, let's do everything we can to win,” James said. “It wasn’t any thoughts of, let's go score as many points as we can’ or anything like that. Shout out to our guys for just playing hard and playing to the best of our ability. The main focus was just to come out and get a win any way possible.”

James had a career night. The former Wyoming star nearly doubled his career-high of 16 points, finishing with 31 on 12-of-17 shooting. The 24-year-old guard topped his total of 31 just four times in his four years at the NCAA level. 

With James filling in a crucial role as the primary scorer, the rest of the team rallied and kept the energy level on high. 

Metu posted a career-best 17 points. Jones stuffed the stat sheet with six points, five assists, five rebounds, and four blocks. King didn’t put up huge stats in his nine minutes of action, but he ran a team-high plus-10 on the night. And Davis posted 16 points, four assists, five rebounds, and three steals. 

Out of this group, the only one of these players that was on the Kings’ regular roster at the start of the season was James and even he hasn’t seen much time this year.

“I give our players a ton of credit,” Walton said after the loss. “They scrapped and fought and competed. It was a fun game. Unfortunately, we made a few too many mistakes down the stretch and they made us pay each time.”

RELATED: Kings' NBA playoff drought hits 15 seasons with loss to Grizz

It’s hard to blame the eight players that made an appearance in the second half for Walton. They battled, despite the fact that all but Hield were filling a role vacated by a starter or rotational player.

 

This isn’t how anyone drew up the end of the Kings’ season. To be honest, the prevailing thought was that this team would have bowed out a month ago when they went on their second nine-game losing streak of the season.

The players took the loss hard. They wanted to fight for the play-in spot and they were less than four minutes away from pushing this thing down to the final two games. With the injuries and illness, it’s shocking they made it this far.

Sacramento will finish off the season with a back-to-back against the same Memphis team on Friday night before returning to Golden 1 Center for one last battle on Sunday against the Utah Jazz. 

As a team, they have nothing left to play for but pride, but each of these individuals that are getting meaningful minutes down the stretch are auditioning for the Kings and every other team in the league. Even with the loss, most of these players aced their performance on Thursday.