SACRAMENTO — Horrifically sloppy turnovers. Unquestionably silly fouls. Dubious shot selection. One catastrophic loss of composure.
After riding the energy and emotion of the team’s first playoff victory in 17 years, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see a bit of a letdown for the Sacramento Kings in Monday’s Game 2 — a “welcome to the playoffs” moment against the confident and battle-tested defending NBA champs.
Instead it was the Kings who looked the part of the cool, collected veterans while the Golden State Warriors transformed into fragile newcomers folding under pressure during Sacramento’s 114-106 Game 2 win at Golden 1 Center.
“I thought they were more physical tonight,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said of the Kings. “It was an incredibly physical game. Really, really a lot of physicality and not much freedom of movement out there. They were the aggressors, and I thought they benefited from being the aggressors.”
It was as clear as Monday night’s Sacramento sky — the Kings took it to the Warriors, who, despite all their collective experience, simply couldn’t handle it.
Golden State coughed up 20 turnovers and gave Sacramento 29 free throws, running out of gas late in the fourth quarter after a valiant but short-lived comeback. Every time it looked as if the Warriors were ready to flip the game on its head, they committed a misstep and Sacramento ruthlessly pounced.
In a much more physical contest than Game 1, the defending champions were the ones on their back heel — perhaps the same heel that Draymond Green used to stomp on the chest of Domantas Sabonis, leading to a critical ejection with just over seven minutes remaining in the game. Watch these plays and ask yourself if this looks like the composed, been-through-it-all team we expected the Warriors to become in the postseason.
With Golden State trailing by 11 points in the third quarter, Andrew Wiggins drove into the lane and stumbled, resulting in a heinous traveling violation.
On the very next possession, Green and Steph Curry — two players who have grown to share a single mind on the basketball court with their uncanny connection — clumsily collided just past half court for a turnover.
Later in the third, Kings guard Davion Mitchell was called for an away from the ball foul, gifting the Warriors a free point. Curry, the NBA’s all-time leader in free throw percentage, missed the technical foul shot.
And finally at the end of the quarter, just when Gary Payton II had given the Warriors a chance to finally gain some momentum by getting a stealth steal to generate a fast break, Wiggins missed a layup he could make in his sleep, taking two crucial points off the board.
The Warriors entered the fourth quarter trailing by eight points. They could have easily had the lead were it not for the deluge of untimely, ugly mistakes.
“The biggest lesson is just, how do we control the momentum early, knowing that they’re young, athletic, they’re trying to play with force immediately,” Curry said after the Game 2 loss. “We can match that. We’ve just gotta play with a little bit more IQ in terms of what we’re trying to do on both ends of the floor.”
Here is Curry, one of the smartest basketball minds to ever step on the court, on one of the smartest teams in NBA history, known for their quick reads and preternatural ability to see things before they happen, saying that his team needs to play with more IQ in a playoff game.
Meanwhile, the Kings were absolutely brilliant down the stretch, displaying the poise and grace we thought the Warriors would bring. Harrison Barnes, the one Sacramento veteran with championship experience (he, of course, won it with Golden State), made three huge buckets in the final six minutes. De’Aaron Fox, by far the best crunch-time performer in the league this season and the front-runner for Clutch Player of the Year, made a dagger 3-pointer from the top of the key with just over two minutes left to put the Kings up by six — the biggest shot of the game to that point.
It might not be surprising to see heroics from Barnes and Fox, but the clincher came from an unexpected source. Second-year Kings guard Davion Mitchell, a 32 percent 3-point shooter who played in 46 total clutch minutes all season (games within five points with five minutes remaining), hit nothing but net on a corner 3-pointer with just over a minute left to put his team up nine points, a signal to the game ops team to commence beam-lighting protocols.
On the ensuing possession, Curry tried to get it back with a quick 3-point attempt, but Mitchell contested perfectly without fouling — something the Kings have excelled at so far this series — and the shot clanked off the backboard to vacuum up all hope from the Warriors and their fans.
Perhaps there’s a bit of naiveté at play here, with the inexperienced Kings behaving instinctually with freedom and abandon because they have nothing to lose — most experts picked against them this series anyway, despite being the No. 3 seed and having home-court advantage.
“There’s so much distraction, excitement, anxiety — whatever you want to call it — around the game,” Barnes said after the win. “But for us, it’s just about putting 48 minutes together. Go out there, stay present, enjoy the moment and compete.”
On the other hand, it must be hard for the Warriors to “just go out there and compete” knowing the expectations surrounding them. A lot of the mistakes they made on Monday night — turnovers and fouling in particular — are issues that plagued them throughout a disappointing regular season. At one point, a team is just the product it puts on the court, and for the Warriors that’s a slightly above .500 team that can’t win on the road.
They’re leaning on their experience and home floor to get them back on the winning track, but this is one thing they’ve actually never gone through. Golden State’s current core, in 27 previous series, has never faced an 0-2 deficit, but they seem content with the fact that even though they didn’t play up to their standard, they had a chance to win both games in this series.
The question heading into Thursday night’s Game 3 is whether the Warriors are a champion waiting to be unleashed, or the same mistake-prone group we’ve seen all season that, largely, just hasn’t been good enough.
“I think the confidence that we have is even — maybe delusional as it sounds — we continue to make the same mistakes, but still compete at a high level and show what we’re capable of,” Curry said after Game 2. “We know we have it, we know we’re capable, it’s just can we execute? That question will determine our fate in this series.”