It would have been ironic if the Kings had suffered a loss so devastating to their playoff hopes just as reinforcements arrived to help them make their postseason push, but that’s not what happened.
The new-look Kings looked out of sorts for 32 minutes while trying to integrate new players after the NBA trade deadline brought about significant roster changes. They started slow, struggled to get up to speed and fell behind by 17 points, but the Kings found a way to win a game they had to have, storming back to beat the Miami Heat 102-96 on Friday night at Golden 1 Center.
“I’m very proud of our group,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “That’s a tough win. We didn’t feel like we played great, but we played hard. We didn’t quit.”
The Kings (29-26) are very much alive in the playoff race with just 27 games remaining in the regular season. With the win over the Heat (25-28), they moved within half a game of the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
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General manager Vlade Divac pulled the trigger on two trades Wednesday that might help the Kings make their first postseason appearance since 2006, but the acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks put the team in a tricky position. The Kings have to keep winning while Joerger works two new players into his rotation without the benefit of training camp or — at this point — even a single practice session.
Barnes started at small forward Friday night. Burks played a key role off the bench. The team will be better in the long run, but there’s little time for a learning curve in a playoff race so tight that every game matters.
“I don’t know if anybody thought we were going to be in this position at this point in the year, but things have happened in the Western Conference and we’ve got an opportunity, so now the little stuff matters even more,” Joerger said. “The silly quick shot. The silly turnover. ... It really matters. Everything is amplified this time of year, and I can’t think of a better experience for our group than going through that.”
Barnes and Burks both made big plays down the stretch. So did De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Willie Cauley-Stein, who blocked three shots in the final 6:29 to help the Kings end the game with a 19-2 run.
“This is a young group, but it’s a maturing group,” said Barnes, who had 12 points and seven rebounds in his Kings debut. “To see them show that poise, to see De’Aaron, Buddy (and) Bogdan kind of just play older than their age, it was good to see that, especially against a veteran team like Miami.”
Joerger said he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on his young players, but they understand the situation.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Hield said. “You know why? Because this city hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2005-06 and it would be a joy to get them back there. This is a great fan base and they love it so much, and they’re passionate about basketball, so there’s a lot of pressure, man, but it’s fun.”
The Kings have won four of their first five games on a six-game home stand that will end when they play the Phoenix Suns on Sunday afternoon. Fox said they should play better against the Suns after having a day to practice with their new teammates on Saturday.
“I think next game we’ll definitely look a lot better,” he said.
Joerger said the Kings looked “discombobulated” against Miami, but they still found a way to win. Barnes believes that could help them establish camaraderie and cohesiveness.
“When you have a hard-fought game like this, it brings a group closer,” Barnes said. “You know what everyone’s about, you kind of have that shared experience, so hopefully we can continue to keeping getting these grind-out wins so we can speed up the chemistry.”