SACRAMENTO — The Golden State Warriors’ three NBA titles in four years naturally invite challenge. The way they’ve re-invented the game under Steve Kerr, with their joyful passing and 3-point barrages, though, have invited something else: Imitation.
The Houston Rockets of last season were constructed specifically to beat the Warriors, but fell in the Western Conference Finals. Toronto — armed with a deeper, more physical roster — battered Golden State at home on Wednesday. Three weeks ago, Golden State faced a young Sacramento Kings team that had grown up in its shadow, and beat them by just one point, needing every second of regulation to do so.
On Friday, that same Kings team — one owned by a man, in Vivek Ranadive, who has an almost-fanatical obsession with the Warriors — once again took Golden State to the brink, pushing the pace with De’Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein. After enduring a 15-2 run at the start of the fourth quarter, the two-time defending champions responded with a 17-2 run over the final three minutes to fend off the upstart team built in their image, 130-125.
“They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with, soon, in this league,” Green said of the Kings, who after a 12-year playoff drought, are hanging in eighth place in the Western Conference. “They’re already tough. De’Aaron’s confidence is sky-high. Willie’s playing with tremendous confidence, [Bogdan] Bogdanovich, Buddy [Hield], they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
Because of Fox’s explosiveness — his effortless glide up the court — the Kings were able to push the tempo and move the ball — a style deliberately designed to mirror Golden State — with 16 assists on their first 18 field goals, finishing with 33 on 45 on the evening. Hield — who Ranadive thinks can be the next Stephen Curry — went 5-of-13 from three.
The Warriors, though, kept pace, despite some psychological warfare.
With the Kings’ mascot dressed in an orange NASA jumpsuit, a Michael Jackson moonwalk cam and foam-board cut-out astronauts roaming the stands to taunt Curry for his remarks doubting the veracity of the moon landing, the Warriors’ point guard played a small role in a whiplash first quarter that saw the two teams combine to shoot 58.3 percent, going 3-of-5 for seven points, thanks to a pair of fouls.
That first quarter also saw Marvin Bagley go down with a left knee bone bruise, but without him, the Kings still had Fox, who baffled whoever Golden State sent to defend him, proving far too quick for either Damion Lee or Kevon Looney, and far too strong for Quinn Cook.
“He made a couple tough finishes over me and hit a mid-range,” Looney said. “He’s up there in the top of the league — him and Russell Westbrook, [John] Wall, but he’s up there as one of the fastest. They play at a really fast pace. When he gets the rebound, he’s pushing. He’s one of the fastest in the league, if not the fastest.”
Curry bounced back to score 10 points in the second, helping Golden State to an eight-point lead at the break, but the Kings had sunk 27 of 51 field goals, including 10-of-25 from 3-point range. Sacramento finished with 31 points scored in transition, and 25 off of turnovers.
The Kings (15-13) went on a 5-0 spurt to start the second half, including a 3-on-1 fourth-chance bucket by Nemanja Bjelica where Green — the only defender — got little help after making a pair of stops.
After that 5-0 run, though, Golden State called time. The Kings hit just four of their next 11 shots as the Warriors got up by 14 on a 3-pointer by Curry, which gave him 27 for the night with just over five minutes to go in the third. Fox scored nine straight, cutting the lead back to nine, slicing through double teams in the paint and hitting a 27-foot 3-pointer that forced Golden State to take another time out with 4:26 to go in the third.
“We lost focus, gave them too many open looks and didn’t get into our offense,” said Klay Thompson.
For every move Curry put on display — crossing over Justin Jackson for his 10th field goal of the night — Fox and the Kings had an answer. After that bucket, Fox sliced through the lane again, crossing up Curry and blowing by Jordan Bell for a lay-up. After an easy run-out from Buddy Hield to Justin Jackson with 10:40 to go in the fourth, Golden State took another time out, up by just one, 103-102.
With both Curry and Kevin Durant on the bench, Sacramento ran off a 15-2 run, and with a three by Yogi Ferrell with 9:40 left, Golden 1 Center rose to its feet, as the Kings took the lead for the first time on the evening. Fans chanted for something no one in attendance had yet seen: defense — but instead, they got more offense, as a Hield make and a three by Jackson gave Sacramento a 112-105 lead.
“We were in control of the game most of the way, and then it just completely collapsed on us,” Kerr said. “It had to do with their pressure and their execution.”
Jonas Jerebko finally ended what was a 25-5 Kings run with a 3-point play to cut the lead to 112-108 with 7:43 to go, but Sacramento powered through, as Green took a seat for the next two and a half minutes. A half-court feed from Fox to Buddy Hield extended the lead to eight, and forced another time out by Golden State with 5:05 to go.
“High energy — they were pushing the ball and the crowd was in it,” Kerr said. “We had I believe six turnovers on illegal screens in the second half, four in the third quarter … At the half, we had six turnovers and we were rolling along, just all those turnovers killed us in the second half, 12 turnovers.”
From when Green re-entered with five minutes left until the one-minute mark, the Kings hit 3-for-8 from the field, and missed five shots in a row. They finished 4-for-11 over the final six minutes.
Durant scored 13 of his game-high 33 in the final stanza, including a three-point play with 2:03 left at the rim to pull the Warriors ahead by five.
Golden State put together an 8-0 run, and with 1:03 left in the game, and trailed by just two points. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein was tagged for his fifth personal foul, and second in a row on Durant, who tied things up with a pair of free throws.
A pull-up jumper from the left elbow by Fox re-took the lead, but Thompson’s three from 27 feet out on the right wing put the Warriors up by one.
“Wide open on the right wing, and I knew one was going to fall eventually,” said Thompson, who finished 4-of-12 from three, scoring 27 points. “Never lose confidence. Just keep shooting.”
Fox drove on Green, who was called for a foul with just 31.4 seconds remaining, giving Sacramento the ball, but because the Warriors were one foul short of going into the bonus, they didn’t send Fox to the line.
“Got to know that at that point in the game,” Green said. “He gets a full head of steam, that’s a bucket. I just try to take the foul before he got into his shooting motion. I probably could have got a contest at the rim, but he’s a great finisher at the rim. He was getting to his left hand. It’s important to now at that point in the game where you are in the foul. You can’t give up anything easy.”
Fox got the in-bound and pulled up from Durant, taking a jumper from the right elbow. It came up short. Durant grabbed the rebound and pushed it up the floor, where Bogdanovich fouled Curry. He iced both free throws to finish things off, scoring his 34th and game-high 35th points.
“KD was unbelievable over the last four minutes,” Curry said. “Klay with the big shot, Draymond playing amazing defense, we found a way to just compete and claw our way out of it.”