Whatever happens over the final five weeks of the regular season, Kings coach Dave Joerger believes something special is happening in Sacramento.
The Kings (31-30) are in playoff contention in March for the first time since they made their last postseason appearance in 2006. They have played some recent games in playoff environments with raucous crowds and critical possessions, and they were expecting more of the same against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night at Golden 1 Center.
Sacramento was ninth in the Western Conference going into the game, two games behind the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, who are both 34-29.
The Kings, who were projected to win fewer than 30 games this season, are at least a year ahead of schedule in their rebuild due to the rapid development of young players such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III. Over the past two weeks, they have gone toe to toe with some of the best teams in the NBA, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder and losing by a total of five points to the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks.
“We’re playing hard and we don’t quit,” Joerger said. “What we’re building here, we will reap the rewards of this for many years to come, not many years from now, but going forward. If this is who we are, and I believe it is, we’re a tough out (in a playoff series) and Sacramento is a tough place to play if you’re a visiting team. We’ll keep coming at you.”
One thing Joerger has been most encouraged by is the togetherness his team has demonstrated this season, a trait that was on display when Bagley went down with a sprained left knee in Wednesday’s 141-140 overtime loss to the Bucks. The first one to Bagley’s side was fellow rookie Harry Giles III, whose career was nearly derailed by a series of major knee injuries when he was in high school.
Giles helped Bagley limp off the floor and then went back to work, leading a valiant comeback from a 17-point deficit to help the Kings force overtime.
“We’re a very close group,” Joerger said. “We’ve got good guys. We all get along really well and it’s special because it’s a young group. Sometimes you maybe see that with older guys who have been around each other and their families have grown up together as you spend years together. We have terrific chemistry for a young group.”
Harrison Barnes, one of the newest additions to the team, has been impressed with the maturity, poise and persistence of his young teammates.
“When you look at Denver and Golden State, two of the best teams in the West, and we’re literally one shot away in both games, I think that’s a testament to the fact that we can play with anybody,” Barnes said. “It’s just a matter of us continuing to get better as a group, our continuity and actually closing out games. It’s getting to that point where we can get over the hump.”
Fox believes Sacramento’s future is bright. He said the Kings are determined to end the league’s longest current playoff drought.
“We know where we’re at,” Fox said. “We know the opportunity that we have to end the streak and we’re trying to do everything possible. Everybody’s going out, playing hard and trying to finish the season as strong as we started.”