Sacramento Worships Beneath The First Playoff Beam
2:40 PM EDT on April 16, 2023
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Two minutes into the third quarter of Warriors-Kings, an eerie, deflated mood descended upon the charged-up arena. The rabid crowd of screaming Kings fans who had waited 17 years to see their team back in the postseason finally got what they wanted, and seem shocked to learn en masse what playoff basketball feels like. The Warriors, who have won difficult games in hostile environments for a decade now with dominating third-quarter runs, came out of halftime with a renewed level of aggression and built a 10-point lead. The home fans were squirming.
But a player who had never been there before lifted the equally green crowd. De'Aaron Fox ripped off 11 straight points for the Kings, keeping his team in contact and crucially bringing the crowd back into it. The Sacramentans in the building roared to life and continued to maim each others' eardrums as the Kings won a thrilling playoff opener against the Warriors, 126-123.
That little quiet period in the third quarter was notable, because it was the only time I could hear myself think during the entire game. Kings fans had years of pent-up energy to unleash, and they enjoyed unleashing it. Beer lines snaked through the concourse, fans open-mouth screamed at each other, and it sounded like every other person brought their cowbell with them. When I arrived at the arena more than three hours before tipoff, the party was well underway. By the time the doors opened, thousands had flooded into the under-beam zone to scream and chant.
Since December, the Kings fan diaspora in my life have talked about going back to Sacramento for the first playoff game. Anyone who had stuck around this long needs some way to ritually excise that pain, so it was no surprise when tickets sold out instantly and hit the resale market with exorbitant markups. It became the most expensive non-Finals NBA playoff game ever, a statistic I thought equally attributable to the length of the Kings' playoff drought and the proximity of their opponents. Warriors fans are a more well-heeled bunch than your typical NBA fanbase and typically take up 30 percent of the arena when the Warriors visit Sacramento, so it seemed like high prices wouldn't keep anyone from driving up I-80.
Wrong. I'd estimate the Warriors constituency around five percent. Maybe the geographic quirks of this series will become apparent at some point down the line, but Game 1 was about the ending of the drought. Plenty of Kings legends returned to the arena; I was most touched by Jason Thompson, perhaps the most potent symbol of the fallow years, coming back to sit courtside. The arena felt overpressurized as the team ran onto the court and the fans went berserk, all that hot breath thickening the air. Harrison Barnes, who had been through so much frustration in his time in Sacramento, said he got chills when he ran out onto the court to this welcome.
To call the 2022-23 Warriors uneven would be selling their weirdness short, but they still hoisted the championship trophy 10 months ago, have never lost a Western Conference playoff series under head coach Steve Kerr, and reassembled their whole team at just the right time. Three Warriors players had more playoff minutes than the entire Kings' roster combined, and a quarter of those Kings minutes belong to Matthew Dellavedova. They are a fearsome six-seed, and as such, the vast majority of national media types have picked the Warriors to win the series. Kings fans grumbled about this, though the rational position was Warriors in six. Rational or not, Kings fans were going to roar no matter who they played.
If any Kings players were nervous, it wasn't the first-timers. Head coach Mike Brown called a normal game with no tightened rotation, the usual amount of backup center minutes (for Alex Len, who was great), and normal early-quarter rest breaks for Fox. You hear a lot about how the playoffs can be different than what worked in the regular season, and I expected the Kings to change up a good deal of what they did. Instead, they ran off made buckets and hoisted threes with 19 seconds on the shot clock and kept the game just as silly as they preferred.
The Warriors clearly game-planned for the Domantas Sabonis-Kevin Huerter dribble handoff action, and thanks to a huge Draymond Green performance (when he was upright) and the triumphant return of Andrew Wiggins, they gummed up the works and protected the right spaces. Huerter went 0-for-5 from three en route to one of his worst games of the season, while Sabonis missed eight shots in the paint and was stonewalled by Kevon Looney. On the other side of the ball, the Kings' plan of attack against Steph Curry was variety. They began with Sabonis showing high and recovering. Then Barnes and Davion Mitchell each got a few turns on him, they tried blitzing him, and they even went with a box-and-one, though mostly Fox was charged with staying in front of him. Curry scored 30 anyway, shooting exactly his career average from three, though he was forced to work hard for his points.
De'Aaron Fox was not. One of the best parts of the NBA playoffs is getting to see players make their debuts. There's a real magic to Luka Doncic dropping 42 against the Clippers or Anthony Edwards going nuts in Memphis, and Fox's spectacular Game 1 was just as compelling. His third-quarter spurt kept his team in the game, and he was even better down the stretch. In the same way that Curry's shooting gravity warps the court and compromises the defense, Fox's speed and control pose serious challenges. The Warriors tried Gary Payton II, Andrew Wiggins, and Donte DiVincenzo on him. None of them were quick enough to keep him out of the paint. When he was able to engineer a switch with Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, or Looney, he got to his spots more casually. Kings starters missed their first 16 threes, a brutal run of luck that would have doomed the Kings if Fox hadn't stepped up. He wound up with 38 points, including eight in crunch time. Look at how overmatched Thompson is on this play. How do you contain this without warping the rest of your defense?
As Fox and Malik Monk (14-for-14 from the line) diced up the Warriors defense and got into the paint on every play, the crowd buoyed them. When Curry missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, the place exploded. People were running around the concourse shrieking. All that nervous energy was translated into jubilation. Fox lit the beam, and the gathered thousands worshipped under its purple glow. The arena poured out into a warm Sacramento night, and the party that'd been on hold for 17 years finally began. All the terrible bars on K Street were slammed, as expected, but every place with a liquor license in Midtown sported an unusual line. It was frothy, sloppy, and well-earned.
The punchline here is that the Kings have won exactly one of the four games they'll need to advance to the second round. They are still probably slight underdogs in this series. That's no reason not to throw a good party.