Can The Sacramento Kings Be Bigger Than The Beam?
11:29 AM EST on March 10, 2023
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Minutes after the Sacramento Kings put the New York Knicks to the sword, showing out in front of a national TV audience against the second-hottest team in the NBA and delighting thousands of beam-hungry fans, Mike Brown strode into his postgame press conference angry, and ripped his team.
"We were not good," Brown said, allowing that, yes, the Kings did win, 122-117. "That's not how we should be playing basketball, what you guys saw tonight. I am not happy with our performance at all." Brown then took it a step further and called out his two all-stars for setting the tone for the team's lax standard of play. With the beam shooting into the sky, profaning the violent storm bearing down on California, there would be no celebrations. Nobody was awarded the traditional post-win Defensive Player Of The Game chain. The message to the team and to the world was clear: This isn't a cute little story anymore. We are here to win.
It really was a cute little story for a while there, though. How could the narrative of this charmed Kings' season not be faintly whimsical, when their identity as a franchise is losing, at high volume, forever, and they achieved competence through sheer force of offensive flame-throwing? How seriously could anyone have possibly taken the team around, say, the turn of the new year, when they seemed to win exclusively on last-second game-winners, were giving up 130 points to anyone who felt like scoring that many, and toggling between the final playoff and first play-in spots every night? How could you deny the team's wholesome vibe?
The first good season after a long run of bad years is one of the purest, most satisfying types of season that any fan could enjoy. This is especially true when the run of bad seasons stretches back to before the Great Recession. When your standards fall as low as "Play normal basketball" (or for that matter "Play basketball here"), your horizons fall with them. A common question posed around the Kings ecosystem is whether or not you think the team is "for real" and when you started believing that; I still don't know how to qualify what that means, because simply making the playoffs has been straightforwardly unattainable for such a long time. There's a freedom in surpassing low expectations, one that is as obvious on the court as it is within the fanbase. When you win the regular-season game of the decade, 176-175, it's impossible not to feel high on luck.
This is all gravy and even if the Kings lose a 2-7 series, it will all still be gravy, because Sacramento will host a bunch of playoff games for the first time since 2006, and every atom of the building will quiver when all that pent-up energy is let loose, and all the young players on the team will earn their first battle scars in the playoffs, and it will end but it will all have been real. If the Kings light the beam after a playoff win, it will feel like the suturing-up of a disgusting wound. But what if there could be more?
It is harder to reevaluate and set newer, loftier expectations. However remarkable the idea of the Kings winning a few games and pecking out a little playoff spot was a month ago, they are the second seed in the Western Conference. They have the best offensive rating in the history of the NBA. They're 7-1 since the all-star break and 19-8 over the past two months. They play fast, confident basketball, and they're still getting better as the season progresses (Keegan Murray shows off something new seemingly every game; this time, it was a smooth up-and-under finish in traffic off a back cut.) They are a serious basketball team, and the point of Mike Brown going at his team after a nice win is to try and jolt them into taking themselves seriously. Lighting the beam is nice, but what about keeping the beam lit?
This played out a bit too literally in Thursday night's Knicks win. Up six points with two and a half minutes left, Trey Lyles stepped to the free-throw line to a chorus of deafening "LIGHT THE BEAM!" chants, an optimism that Brown expressed a queasiness towards after the game. Sacramento was attempting to will the beam into existence, but the Knicks were not nearly dead yet, and 90 seconds later, Julius Randle hit a layup to cut the lead to two with 47 seconds to play. This would be a prime counterfactual in the "for real" quandary. The Kings are, spiritually speaking, the sort of franchise that would lose in humiliating fashion in their national showcase game on TNT after their fans toasted a victory way too early. It's a good thing spirits aren't real, because an ailing De'Aaron Fox calmly dissected the Knicks for 14 points in the fourth quarter and hit a ridiculous layup at the rim to slam the door shut after that Randle scare.
The Knicks are one of the two teams to hold the Kings under 100 this year, which made Thursday's matchup an enticing one before it got bumped onto TNT. When those Kings lost to those Knicks (before both teams truly made something of themselves), they were ruthlessly bullied and pounded into a fine powder. Four months later, could they show off any defensive improvements, contend with the Knicks' superior physicality, or grab a single rebound? In order: yes, yes, no. Sacramento gave up 117, though they put together one of their better point-of-attack defensive performances of the season. The Knicks missed 59 shots, and the nonchalant rotations that killed the Kings against Minnesota and should have killed them against the Clippers last week were replaced by snappy, smart team defense. You will point to the number 117, though all that matters is that the Kings were good enough. They didn't even play particularly well on offense by their standards—three-pointers fell early and then completely stopped falling, and they assisted fewer of their made shots than usual—and this would have remained the blowout it threatened to be when the Kings took a 65-45 lead in the second but for their inability to hit the glass.
The Knicks had 23 offensive rebounds, led by Josh Hart's eight. All season, Mike Brown has gotten on his team to simply grab the ball, and most of the year they have failed to do so. They're small, as they start both a rookie and only one true big man, yet Hart is also small, and there he was destroying them. One possession alone featured five boards. Winning despite ceding such a pronounced rebounding advantage is, for this particular team, maybe even more impressive than their usual 140-127-type wins. It's the sort of ugly, persistent game you have to win if you want to advance in the payoffs, and it's the type of game the Kings have gotten smoked in all year. Ideally, you do not have to survive something as hideous as this in order to show progress.
Maybe Mike Brown writes that off as a teaching moment two months ago, but two months ago, nobody on the team ever used the word "when" in reference to the playoffs. They do now. There's a sense of certainty around this team, which Brown is clearly fostering. Chimezie Metu went on TV the other day and said Brown "has us talking championships." That's a laugh line in any other year, and even though the chance of the Kings hoisting a championship trophy in June is so asymptotically unlikely I don't think I can seriously consider it, no team ever falls backwards into one by being a cute little story. They go fight people for one.