Sacramento Kings

‘We have something to play for’: The Kings say don’t count them out of playoff race

Willie Cauley-Stein, right, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings are still in the playoff hunt.
Willie Cauley-Stein, right, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings are still in the playoff hunt.

They hear the talk. They know what’s at stake. They know what they have to do.

If the Kings want to reach the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2006, they need to win.

Sacramento has 15 games left this season after losing 126-120 to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on Thursday night.

“We have something to play for,” Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein said Thursday morning. He’s is in his fourth year in the NBA, all with Sacramento. “In past seasons, we were just playing the rest of the games out.”

It’s been a tough stretch for the Kings, who are 3-8 in their last 11 games. Each loss, except Monday’s in Washington, came against teams expected to be in the playoffs.

That’s where the Kings are still trying to go, despite what the odds suggest. According to playoff probabilities on Basketball Reference, the Kings began Thursday with a 1.6 percent chance to make the top eight in the Western Conference. The teams above them have much higher odds: the Utah Jazz are at 99.8 percent, the Los Angeles Clippers 99.5 and the San Antonio Spurs 99.1.

None of this is deterring the Kings.

“Our hopes are still the same,” Cauley-Stein said. “We still believe we can make it, so we’ll keep grinding.”

To be in the conversation at this point wasn’t expected when the season began.

“No one thought Sacramento would have a chance, but we’re in a playoff race,” Kings forward Corey Brewer said. “Anything can happen. ... If we put together some wins and other teams lose games, then we’re right where we want to be.”

After Thursday’s loss, Sacramento is 4 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race. The Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs are five games ahead of the Kings. All play Friday except the Jazz, who beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

This is new territory for several Kings players, including guard Buddy Hield. The close games are giving the team experience, but now they have to turn it into victories.

“It shows that we can’t take any plays off and it shows that every game matters,” Hield said. “When we lose, we feel sick that we let one go because that could have helped us in the hunt for the playoffs.”

The Kings aren’t worried about numbers or looking too far ahead. They know their focus has to stay on what’s in front of them, and that’s closing this East Coast swing with a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.

“For us, we’re living in the now,” Kings center Kosta Koufos said. “We want to be in the playoffs; that’s a goal of ours. This back-to-back is very important, so we have to take it day by day.”

The group is one of the youngest in the NBA, but they have a handful of veterans with postseason experience, including Brewer, Koufos and forward Harrison Barnes.

“They have a hunger to be good and desire to learn how to get better,” Barnes said. “They want to experience the playoffs and do it the right way. The biggest thing for us is the process of getting better and keeping the playoff hunt in mind.”

Should the Kings fall short, they’ll be upset but still feel they’re trending positively.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but it’ll still be disappointing watching teams we could have beat,” Hield said. “Those teams did what they were supposed to do and we didn’t.”

Postseason or not, the Kings are showing they’re on the upswing.

“All playoff talk aside, we’re building this franchise,” Cauley-Stein said. “We took those steps last summer and it shows. The league is talking about us, everyone’s talking about us. We’re obviously a better team, and the more and more we’re together, the better we’re going to get.”

Noel Harris is a sports reporter for The Sacramento Bee, with a focus on the Kings. He’s been in professional journalism for more than 18 years. His roles have included sports editor at The Modesto Bee and news editor at two smaller California newspapers, as well as online producer and copy editor.