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Draymond Green And The Warriors Taught Sacramento A Painful Lesson

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 26: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors shoots a free throw during Round 1 Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2023 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When this redemptive Sacramento Kings team cast off their city's demons and formally qualified for the playoffs, a great deal was made about how much the world had changed since the last time they'd last made it to the postseason, 17 years earlier. Simply by returning, history (in the most value-neutral sense) would be made, regardless of how long they stayed. That's true, but as the fervent Kings crowd learned last night, the experience of being there cuts both ways.

Draymond Green dished seven assists and scored 21 points against the Kings in Wednesday's backbreaking Game 5, a 123-116 Golden State victory. It was his highest scoring total since a March 2018 game against Phoenix; only three of that game's 10 starters are still in the league. It was Green's highest postseason total since a 2017 second-round game against Utah that Shelvin Mack started. Green's outburst, in what feels like the decisive game of this thrilling series, is impressive along a number of axes; consider, for example, how he basically stopped shooting four years ago, and how the Warriors have been unable to win away from San Francisco all season, and how Green spent the earlier games of this series mostly concerned with bludgeoning his opponents on the other side of the ball.

But most of all, Green slicing the Kings up on 8-for-10 shooting feels like the schematic apotheosis of this series. Four games in, both teams had landed their best punches. The Warriors schemed a perfect way to erase Domantas Sabonis, and in the process also erased Kevin Huerter and, to a lesser degree, Keegan Murray, whose offense is heavily reliant on his handoffs. And so the Kings turned instead to Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox to touch the paint and make plays, and their guard play won them Games 1 and 2. On defense, the Kings put Sabonis high and glued Davion Mitchell onto Steph Curry, and so the Warriors worked advantageous matchups and tried out the inverted Green-Curry pick-and-roll, and scored consistently enough to win Games 3 and 4 as a result. Game 5 demanded more from both teams, fresh adjustments to the new realities of the series. How would each team counter the counters?

This stage in any great series—and no matter what happens in San Francisco on Friday, this is indeed a great series—is always fascinating, because it forces coaching staffs and players who know their opponents so well to reach a new level of ambition. In that sense, the story of Game 5 was the Warriors finding another gear and the Kings falling short. Green is the poster man here because the Warriors' main counter to all that high pressure was to give the roll man the ball in space and let that player make a decision, which tended to be hitting the corner man making a hard cut off the baseline. The Kings, bless their hearts, are a well organized bunch of defenders who have done an admirable job focusing on shutting down the primary action. That's maybe all you can ask from a bunch that has no rim protection and finished 25th in defense in the regular season, but they are getting destroyed on the weak side.

"They've seen every type of defense you can imagine," Mike Brown said after the game. "You can only try to take so many things away from them, because when you do, you're gonna expose yourself somewhere else." The Kings refuse to let Curry get anything easy, and while that's a sensible decision—and while he and Klay Thompson once again made some outrageous shots—the flipside of that strategy is allowing four-on-threes and two-on-ones like the play below. Green wasn't involved in this particular play, but Kevon Looney, who has outplayed and exposed Sabonis all series long, has also consistently found these simple passes.

The Kings, to their great credit, have brought an admirable level of fight to this matchup. When news broke on Monday that Fox had broken the tip of the index finger on his shooting hand late in Game 4, it seemed like his team and its season were pretty much cooked. Fox insisted that he'd play and that he'd be fine, and indeed, he nailed his first three three-pointers and looked very much like himself. The Kings played as if shot out a cannon on Wednesday, racking up a quick nine-point lead after finally, for the first time in the five games, hitting some first-half threes. Murray's first three games were dreadful, though his shooting gravity had forced the Warriors into weird positions regardless, and he had it going in a 10-point first quarter. Sacramento has gotten very little from the three guys involved in this possession, and Huerter in particular has been hounded out of the series, but I bring up this Klay Thompson screen-navigation whoopsie because it is a bread-and-butter Kings play that the Warriors have successfully erased through the other 98 percent of the series. Thompson and Donte DiVincenzo are plainly terrified of Huerter here:

But a team can only get so much out of such actions when Sabonis is given an 11-foot runway on every play and can never seem to solve it. He scored 21 last night, though he had five turnovers and was more than doubled-up on the boards by Looney. Sabonis has been awful, and the extent to which the Warriors have effectively taken him out of the series has disrupted the entire offense downstream. The Warriors' gameplan is centered around taking Sabonis out of his rhythm, but they're doing so not by pressuring him, but by sagging way off and giving him space. Game 1 saw Sabonis trying and failing to break through the brick-wall-ass defense of Looney, and he hasn't found a way to make Golden State pay ever since. The Kings offense got so busted that, in a bit of trademark third-quarter desperation, Mike Brown broke the glass and turned to his emergency offense: Time for Harrison Barnes to draw a foul with the ugliest shit you have ever seen.

It worked for a while, and Monk kept the team in contact with some heroic finishes despite appearing to destroy his knee. But right at the moment when Fox usually takes over fourth quarters, he seemed to aggravate that broken finger. When he poked the ball away from Curry here for a steal with the Kings down 10, he had 24 points on 9-for-20 shooting. He would go 0-for-5 the rest of the way and would not score again.

The Kings somehow willed the game back into question, though they turned the rock over in frustrating ways down the stretch (they wound up with 19) and, for the first time in the series, seemed to balk at the pressure of the moment. Angsty Kings fans roared for each stop, then squirmed in their seats as Green and Curry calmly made the right play every time. The Warriors veterans were not fazed by the crowd at all. This is the difference that experience makes; watching it work felt familiar, and inevitable.

Down four with six minutes left coming off a Warriors timeout, Brown dialed up some zoom action for Monk. He got the handoff and touched the paint with force only for Green to simply slide over and draw an easy charge. Everyone got mad, but it was the right call. The Kings' effort level never dropped, which somehow made it even more painful to watch Curry turn into the Road Runner, evade capture for an entire possession, and seal the game.

Sacramento Kings fans and players alike are learning the hard way what it takes to win in the playoffs against the defending champions. Taken together, Green eating the free space and scoring 21, Thompson hitting circus shots, and Sacramento grasping at and falling short of answering Golden State's pressure all served to illustrate the delta between a good team and a great one. The game truly is different at this level, and the amount of on-the-fly problem-solving the Warriors are capable of was simply too much for the Kings. It's not that the Warriors make it look easy; the Kings are too good, and too game, for that. It's just that all this intricate, high-pressure counterpunching looks a lot easier for the Warriors than it does for the Kings. This, as the 18,000 strong learned Wednesday, is playoff basketball.

That goes two ways, too. I will point out here to Kings fans that their team pushing the Warriors to this level of desperation and schematic wizardry is sincerely impressive, especially since the Kings could still have won Game 4 if Harrison Barnes had hit an open shot and Game 5 if they hadn't missed 21 of their last 23 threes. The Warriors are going sicko mode, yes, but it's still barely working, and the Kings are still in this fight. I imagine that NBA neutrals are loving this, which is a mark in this series' favor and a sign that the Kings are something special, even if they wind up knocked out on the canvas on Friday.

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