The Milwaukee Bucks served as a measuring stick for the up-and-coming Kings on Monday night.
Milwaukee, less than two years removed from an NBA championship, played a near-perfect second half to defeat the Kings 133-124 in front of a sellout Golden 1 Center crowd.
It was a taste of playoff basketball for Sacramento, a franchise ready to feast on postseason hoops after a 16-year famine.
“I think as far as games have gone this year, yeah,” guard De’Aaron Fox said when asked if Monday’s clash was the Kings’ game with the most playoff-like atmosphere this season.
“Obviously, we don’t know what the future holds yet but that’s a championship team. That’s a battle-tested team. They made us pay for every mistake that we made.”
The Kings led by nine points at halftime after they held Milwaukee to five 3-pointers and forced nine turnovers in the opening two quarters. But the Bucks quickly turned it on after the break and outscored the Kings by 12 in the third.
When Sacramento fought back in the final quarter with 17 points from Kevin Huerter, there was Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez or Grayson Allen countering with a 3-pointer of their own to put the game away.
“That’s a championship-caliber staff. That’s a championship-caliber team,” Sacramento coach Mike Brown said of Milwaukee. “A lot of those players have won at a high level for many years. They’re veteran guys. That nucleus has played together for a lot of years.
“They know what it takes to hit somebody in the mouth -- not just for five minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes, but to keep at it for close to 48 minutes. Matching that or exceeding their level of intensity is a challenge for us. It was good for us to go through it and not back down.”
As the No. 3 playoff seed in the Western Conference, the Kings have advanced past the days of moral victories for sticking with star-studded rosters. But the way Sacramento kept fighting Monday night served as a preview for what’s ahead for its roster with little playoff experience outside of former world champions Harrison Barnes and Matthew Dellavedova.
With Antetokounmpo under contract for the next four seasons, Milwaukee is an NBA powerhouse for the foreseeable future. It wasn't always that way, however.
Similar to the Kings' playoff drought, the Bucks endured 17 years between postseason series wins. Antetokounmpo made the playoffs three times over four seasons with coach Jason Kidd, failing to advance past the first round each year.
That is, until Mike Budenholzer stepped in as head coach in the 2018-19 NBA season.
The Bucks made a gigantic leap in Budenholzer’s first year. They featured the top-scoring offense in the league by running everything through Antetokounmpo and surrounding him with outside shooters. Milwaukee sent two players to the All-Star Game that season -- Antetokounmpo and Middleton -- for the first time in nearly two decades, and they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Kings are experiencing a similar rise this season. In the first year under Brown, Sacramento boasted two All-Stars in Fox and Sabonis, who lead an offense on pace to set an all-time NBA record with a 118.7 offensive rating through 67 games. The playoff drought's days are numbered in Sacramento.
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Brown's bunch has plenty of work to do to measure up to Budenholzer's debut campaign in the Cream City, but the Bucks serve as a model franchise built around a core that stuck together and made an underperforming franchise a consistent winner.