Cory Joseph

Luke Walton says Kings must 'feel that pain' after playoff elimination

Luke Walton says Kings must 'feel that pain' after playoff elimination

Luke Walton summed up 14 years of Kings basketball in one statement Sunday night following Sacramento's elimination from playoff contention.

“We’re not there as a team,” the Kings coach said after Sunday's loss to the Houston Rockets. “Unfortunately the best and only way to really learn that lesson is to feel that pain. And that pain’s gotta mean enough, it’s gotta hurt enough that we’re willing to make changes.”

Changes might come whether Walton wants them or not, but the point is, once again, that the Kings aren’t there.

In Walton's defense, he got the Kings closer to a postseason berth in his first season than they've been in any other season since 2005-06. Sacramento was mathematically eliminated from a playoff spot ahead of their third-to-last regular-season game, albeit in a very bizarre season. It's frustrating and the final outcome is what matters, but there also needs to be some perspective.

The Kings were one of 22 teams to participate in the restarted NBA season because they deserved to compete for a playoff spot. When the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus, Sacramento was in a three-way tie for ninth in the Western Conference. The Kings were the hottest team out of the lot fighting for the eighth seed.

This largely is the same team that showed promise under Dave Joerger last season while still finishing 9.0 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the West's final playoff spot. They were fun to watch, but they "were not there as a team" in the end.

What is missing from this group? The Kings' defensive effort was atrocious in the Orlando bubble, but they also struggled with the finer nuances of the game. They made mistakes at times when you can’t make mistakes and it cost them the opportunity to win at least two games.

“It’s just how important details are,” Fox said about what the Kings learned. “We were in the race last year and we were in the race when we got to the bubble, but it’s just how every little thing matters. Every single second of every game matters. You can’t have mental lapses.”

It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Kings fans were hopeful that this team might break the spell. Instead, they're watching the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers flaunt their experience and surge into the playoff race.

They’ve even watched the talented-yet-mediocre Phoenix Suns streak past the Kings in the standings and jump right into the mix.

Sacramento isn’t the only team to fall apart in Orlando. Oddsmakers gave the New Orleans Pelicans the best odds to finish in ninth and force a play-in series for the last playoff spot, and they've completed flamed out. New Orleans is 2-4 in the bubble, despite having the easiest schedule.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 1-5 since the restart, clinging to just a half-game lead in eighth after starting the restarted season up 3.5 games on ninth.

How do the Kings take the next step and show improvement over a shortened offseason?

“It’s going to take a lot more work, but that’s what we are here for,” Fox said following the loss to the Rockets. “We’re here to win games, but we’ve got to put it together, completely.”

The Kings were a Jekyll and Hyde team all season. Sacramento started 15-29, then won 13 of the next 21 before the season suspended.

All season, you never knew which team would show up. That was firmly on display during a 1-5 start in the bubble.

“We got to be consistent,” point guard Cory Joseph said. “The inconsistency the whole year killed us. We’re a very talented team and that’s why it’s very upsetting that we’re in this position. We just have to learn from it and come back stronger.”

The Kings fought down the stretch in the restart opener, but couldn't execute in the final four minutes of their loss to the San Antionio Spurs. Sacramento was blown out by the middle-of-the-road Magic in the next game, losing a down-to-the-wire nail-biter to the Dallas Mavericks in the third.

A big win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday lifted the Kings' spirits, but they followed that up a day later with a loss to the no-name Brooklyn Nets. Joseph said the finer details are missing from Sacramento's play.

“We got to do the little things,” Joseph said. “We lost a lot of games on make shot, miss shot. To be a good team, it can’t all be predicated on that. You have to come out and have a strong identity every game on both ends of the court -- the way we move it on offense and also the way we play for each other on defense. As long as we get better at that and consistently do it on a nightly basis, we’ll be in a good position next year to make it.”

[RELATED: Kings' future uncertain after they miss NBA playoffs again]

It’s back to the drawing board of Sacramento. The Kings play two more games before heading home, but then the real work begins.

Will they make changes to the coaching staff or management? It seems unlikely at this point, but they have some major decisions to make with the roster as they prepare for another season that’s just around the corner.

Kings' NBA playoff inexperience shows in bad losses in Orlando bubble

Kings' NBA playoff inexperience shows in bad losses in Orlando bubble

The NBA’s eight-game restart in Orlando isn’t the playoffs, but it might as well be for teams like the Sacramento Kings.

The level of intensity is playoff worthy. The physicality is playoff worthy. Most of the 22 teams invited to the action are playoff worthy.

Sacramento’s 0-2 start is a gut punch, especially when you look at their remaining six-game schedule. The expectations were high coming into the restart and the results from the first two games aren’t just your standard losses, they both were demoralizing.

Head coach Luke Walton talked about his team getting pushed around following Sunday’s debacle in the bubble. On Monday morning, the team brought out a couple of veterans to help give some perspective.

“I just think overall it’s a very good learning experience for a very young team that hasn’t been in a playoff-type atmosphere,” Kent Bazemore said. “I think the intensity down here is reminiscent of the playoffs, without the 20,000 people. So it’s an eye-opening experience for a lot of guys.”

[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

While the Kings aren’t necessarily young in NBA years, they have a core of players that are inexperienced. They have no idea how the action changes in the final 10-20 games of the season when teams gear up for the playoffs, although they got a small taste of that last season. And they certainly haven’t experienced the pressure of a seven-game postseason series.

“We’ve got to understand that it’s a sprint,” Bazemore continued. “We’ve got to come out with a better sense of urgency. It’s just something that you can’t really explain to a guy, they have to go through it.”

The hole is deep, but there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Not only do the Kings have an opportunity to bounce back, but the experience that they are gaining through this experience is invaluable.

The coaching staff and the veterans on the roster need to guide the younger players through this period, both on and off the court.

“You’ve just gotta keep your spirits high, keep positive energy and make it contagious,” Cory Joseph said. “Guys are professionals. They are going to do what they’ve gotta do to get their games back right.”

The Kings aren’t the only team that is struggling early in the tournament. The Memphis Grizzlies have dropped their first two games, same with the New Orleans Pelicans. A team like the San Antonio Spurs, who have made the playoffs 22 consecutive seasons, have somehow rattled off consecutive wins to take a lead in the race for the play-in game.

The Portland Trail Blazers, who made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, are 1-1 in the restart and like San Antonio, they’ve shown that they are ready for the challenge ahead.

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Is the season over for Sacramento? No. The Kings still have time to turn it around and at least make things interesting. But their already narrow margin for error has gotten even smaller.

“The worst part about it is that we are underachieving as a team, that’s just the truth,” Bazemore said. “We’re a very talented team. We’re more talented than the first two teams we played against and a lot of other teams that are here.”

Talent is an important ingredient to NBA success, but so is experience, execution and physicality. Hopefully the Kings are learning that they can’t walk into a gym and just expect to win on talent alone.

The Kings return to the court on Tuesday where they’ll face Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. If they have any hope of this being more than just a learning experience, they have to step up to the challenge against a talented team.

Kings 'want all that smoke' in NBA restart, focusing on playoff run

Kings 'want all that smoke' in NBA restart, focusing on playoff run

Not every team in the NBA bubble is 100 percent focused on the eight-game seeding tournament. In fact, there are many motivations for those eight games.

For a team like the Washington Wizards, who enter the week without Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans, it’s about surviving the experiment. They have flown to the Orlando bubble with very little opportunity to make the playoffs and their focus likely will be on developing young players and doing right by the NBA.

For the Los Angeles Lakers, whose sights are set on an NBA championship, not eight meaningless build-up games, the focus is different. Sure, they want to find a rhythm, but the first two rounds of the playoffs will provide that opportunity. They need to make it through eight games without an injury to one of their stars and they likely will play accordingly.

And then there is a group of playoff hopeful teams. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento are ready for a fight. They have zero margin for error as they battle it out for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Are the Kings ready for that challenge? That is the million dollar question.

“It’s an eight-game tournament and we want all that smoke,” Buddy Hield said earlier this week. “We’re going to go out there and compete and try and win this tournament.”

Hield isn’t alone in his thinking. The Kings appear laser focused on the prize, which is snapping the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought.

[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

“Our goal is to make the playoffs, that’s what we’re here for,” De’Aaron Fox told NBC Sports California. “We’re not here just to give teams a tuneup for their little playoff runs or anything like that.”

“We’re coming out here and obviously in that very first game trying to make a statement, just to show that we belong here and we have a shot, just like everyone else, to make the playoffs,” Fox added.

With games every other day, the Kings have to stay focused on the task at hand. They have eight games to prove that they are worthy of either taking the eighth seed or at least finishing in ninth place with an opportunity to take part in a play-in game.

Sacramento has had some hiccups getting the roster healthy and in the bubble together, but the team walks into the seeding tournament with about as healthy of a group as they’ve had all season long.

“We’ve been through a lot this season,” coach Luke Walton said. “We’ve been through a lot of injuries, we’ve been through getting off to a really slow start. We’ve been through different lineups. We kind of came through all of that before the stoppage of play and really found a nice groove as a team. When you go through difficult things as a group, you start to become battle tested.”

Before the shutdown, the Kings were in a good place. They had won 13 of their previous 20 games and they had some momentum. After a four-month break, they’ve come back together and appear ready to prove they belong.

“We should all be motivated for this, it’s quite a unique chance to play in this bubble,” Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “It’s going to be hard for everyone else, but the most mentally-ready team and physically, will at the end win.”

The Kings have been working closely together on the court. They’ve also spent a lot of time together in the bubble, fishing, playing golf and even bowling. It’s a tight-knit group, which is extremely important in a situation like this.

“We’ve spent a lot of time together over the last couple of weeks and I love the work we’ve gotten in and I love the group we have,” Walton said. “Now it’s time to get out there on the court. The pressure is going to be a little different tomorrow.”

The Kings have a small group of players in Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore, Cory Joseph and Corey Brewer who have real playoff experience. And then they have another group of younger guys who have never been within reach of a postseason berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the NBA’s bubble is a unique experience. The Kings, like every team in attendance, will have to adjust to having no fans in the building. They are playing for a hungry group 3,000 miles away, but during the game, they will have to make their own fire.

“We have to go in with an all-time high confidence,” Hield said. “We have to bring our own energy and that comes from loving each other and communicating with each other and understanding us.”

[RELATED: Barnes, Holmes will have no minutes restrictions for Kings]

The Kings sound like they are ready for the challenge ahead. They’ve struggled to prove that in the past, but this team seems different. They are deep at every position and if they play with pace, there are very few teams that can keep up with them.

Beginning on Friday, they’ll have an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong. They’ll open up against the Spurs, but then the games come fast and furious. The Kings will have a 15-day window to make their mark and either earn a chance to advance to the next round or head back home and start planning for next season.