The Kings have defied expectations to stay in playoff contention despite blowing a few fourth-quarter leads and enduring one of the NBA’s toughest schedules over the first half of the season.
Their schedule has been grueling in terms of which teams they’ve faced and how often they have encountered back-to-back situations. They have already played three games against the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers and two against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, five of the top eight teams in the Western Conference.
Adding to the degree of difficulty, only one team in the NBA has played more back-to-back games than the Kings. Those situations take a toll on players.
“Sometimes you definitely feel it in your legs,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “You might not feel it in your breathing, but your body will kind of tell you sometimes.”
The Kings (20-21) will start the second half of the season when they host the Detroit Pistons (17-21) on Thursday night at Golden 1 Center. They reached the midway point with a 115-111 road loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday after beating the Orlando Magic 111-95 at home Monday.
Sacramento currently has the eighth-toughest strength of schedule in the NBA, according to ESPN.com’s Relative Percent Index. It will be more favorable in the coming weeks, but coach Dave Joerger doesn’t want his players to know that.
“I don’t want the players to get into a situation, because we’re young, where you feel like, ‘OK, we just played pretty well against Portland. We played pretty well against Denver. We played pretty well against Golden State. And, oh, we’re going to play some teams that have a record similar to ours, so it’s going to be easier,’” Joerger said. “No, it’s not. I don’t want that mindset going anywhere with a young crew.
“With an older crew, you don’t have to talk to them about going after each game with the same amount of focus. That’s what we’ve been preaching as we continue to develop, but my goal is for us to be in the playoffs, and I think that’s the players’ goal.”
Going into Wednesday’s games, the Kings were two games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference and four games behind the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, who were tied for fifth. They squandered yet another opportunity to pad their win total against the Suns after letting late leads slip away against the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Warriors last week, but they will have a chance to gain ground in the playoff chase in the days and weeks ahead.
According to Tankathon.com, the Kings currently have the 12th-easiest remaining schedule, trailing only the Utah Jazz, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Clippers and Rockets among Western Conference teams.
Monday’s game against the Magic started a stretch of eight games against six teams with a combined record of 142-175. The Kings will play seven of their first eight January games at home with a league-high five rest-advantage games over the course of the month. They had a rest advantage over Orlando on Monday and will have a similar advantage over four of their next five opponents.
All three teams that will visit Golden 1 Center over the next five days will be playing the second night of a back-to-back. The Pistons and Trail Blazers will be playing their third game in four nights. The same will be true for the Pistons when the Kings go to Detroit on Jan. 19.
The Kings won’t have another back-to-back scenario until they visit the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 21 and the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22. That will be their last back-to-back until March 14-15, when they visit the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Sacramento has played back-to-back games nine times this season, more than any team in the league except the Lakers (nine) and the Brooklyn Nets (10). The Kings are 3-6 on the second night of a back-to-back. They are 14-7 with one day between games.
NBA teams are a combined 81-115 on the second night of back-to-backs. Only 11 teams are over .500. The Dallas Mavericks are 0-7. The Suns are 0-6.
“I always feel like when the better team is sitting there rested, while the lesser team is playing, it’s a struggle for the lesser team on the second night of a back-to-back,” Joerger said. “Vice versa, I think that’s when you can see (lesser) teams ... knock off some of those (better) teams.”
Sacramento forward Justin Jackson acknowledged that back-to-back situations can wear on players’ bodies and minds, but he said the Kings can’t assume they will have a competitive advantage against their upcoming opponents.
“Your body definitely feels that it’s a back-to-back, but there are some teams that can go out and win back-to-backs on the regular,” Jackson said. “Even though we’re playing against teams that are maybe in a back-to-back or whatever, mentally, we have to be ready to go out there and play as if it was a game where both teams are rested.”