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Three ways Kings can defeat Warriors in do-or-die play-in game originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

The Kings can’t blame anyone but themselves — which they don’t — for the position they’re in heading into their NBA Play-In Tournament matchup with the Golden State Warriors.

Just a few weeks ago, the No. 6 playoff seed was right at their fingertips. But their butterfingers let it slip right out and somehow, they managed to slide all the way down to the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference — where they now will play the same team who ended their fairytale season just one year ago in a win-or-go-home game.

Sacramento lost five of its last seven contests, while Golden State finished the 2023-24 regular season winning 10 of its last 12.

The distinction is obvious. A switch was flipped for the Warriors in the second half of the season, particularly down the final stretch, and they started playing their best basketball of the season at just the right time. Whatever the opposite of that is is how the Kings closed their regular season.

The injuries to Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter didn’t help, of course, but there were a lot of games they should have won that they ultimately just couldn’t close out. But we’re not going to play the should’ve-could’ve-would’ve game. It’s a do-or-die scenario inside Golden 1 Center on Tuesday night.

It won’t be easy by any means, but the Kings have a shot at advancing to Friday’s play-in game for their final chance at a first-round playoff series. Here’s how they can do it:

Stars gotta be stars

It is no secret that the pairing of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis helped turn things around in Sacramento.

A basketball-loving town experienced 17 long, miserable years of playoff-less basketball until last season, when Fox and Sabonis helped lead a historically magical season that snapped a 16-season playoff drought.

There was a lot of concern surrounding Fox as he entered the first-round playoff series against the Warriors last season, questioning his ability to perform on the big stage for the first time in his career.

Fox silenced the critics and put on a show in his first postseason experience, averaging 27.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.1 steals in 38.5 minutes in the seven-game series. The series helped put his name on the broader NBA map, but he knew there was plenty of room for him to grow. And he did.

He stayed in Sacramento all offseason and worked on his 3-point shot with Kings assistant coach Luke Loucks. The results were noticeable, shooting the 3-ball this season with the most confidence he ever has in his career. Fox’s improvements reflected on the other end of the floor, too — dramatically. Kings coach Mike Brown has pushed him on that end, and is averaging a career-high two steals per game this season, which also leads the league.

The 26-year-old has unlocked new parts of his game that he must flash in Tuesday’s contest. His quickness, anticipation, confidence and athleticism should help.

Meanwhile, Sabonis’ production will be huge for the outcome of the game. Of course, basketball is a team sport and the results should lie upon one person. But because Sabonis is the engine that runs the Kings’ unique offense, he will be key for Sacramento on Tuesday night.

After the Kings’ season ended on heartbreak last year, Sabonis’ name was tossed around all offseason.

A lot of the noise was valid — Kevon Looney and the Warriors did dominate Sabonis in the series and the Lithuanian big man didn’t have his best showing against Golden State. One thing that stood out was his hesitance to shoot the jumper when the Warriors sagged off him. They dared him to shoot it over and over again and he either wouldn’t, or when he would, it be after several seconds of hesitating and overthinking. A lot of those situations also led him to refuse to let it fly and instead, he would try to pass the ball but would instead turn it over.

Sabonis had 99 shot attempts in last season’s playoff series against Golden State. Five of them were 3s, the rest were inside the arc. Of the shots — 43 were layups, where he made 21 (48.8 percent), 23 were non-3-point jump shots, where he made nine (39.1 percent), 20 were hook shots where he made 10 (50 percent) and finally, he made all of his eight dunks.

Over the summer, Sabonis responded to all that noise from his underwhelming playoff showing. He deleted social media, spent time with his family and got to work on the basketball court. All offseason.

He played all 82 games for Sacramento this season and led the league in triple-doubles, double-doubles and rebounding. He averaged 19.4 points on nearly 60 percent shooting, with 13.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists.

The results have to translate into the postseason, though. The people who thoroughly have watched him play this season already know how special he is to essentially everything Sacramento does on the court, but the nationwide respect won’t come until he is able to have a similar impact in the most important game of the Kings’ season.

Defense, defense, defense

When Brown accepted the job as the next head coach of the Kings last season, the defensive-minded coach had a challenging task ahead.

While defense was always his priority, he ironically led a team that thrived off its historic offense. The result was a storybook season, the No. 3 playoff seed and a playoff appearance for the first time in nearly two decades.

But the coach wasn’t pleased with just a playoff appearance. After his final press conference of the season after last season’s first-round exit, he emphasized how excited he is to help his team grow. A few months later, they immediately got back to work.

One word that was repeated from training camp to preseason to the regular season and now into their make-or-break matchup: physicality.

For the most part, the Kings have responded well to Brown’s plea. They gradually got better — but gradual wasn’t good enough in a physically demanding league. Enter Keon Ellis, who just had his two-way contract converted into a standard NBA contract. Ellis was plopped into the rotation following the season-ending injury to Huerter — and the defensive impact was nearly immediate.

The Kings are a different defensive team than they were during last season’s seven-game series. Heck, they’re even a different team than they were during their most recent run-in with the Warriors in January.

Since March 1, which was the first game Ellis started, the Kings are third in the NBA in defensive rating, 13th in offensive rating and fifth in net rating. The defensive impact a single player has sometimes can be hard to measure, but his presence alone helped his teammates lock in as well.

Davion Mitchell’s resurgence has been a factor, too. The young guard already has proven what he’s capable of on the defensive end of the floor, but after Monk also went down with injury, opportunities arose for Mitchell.

This isn’t anything new to the Warriors, either. Mitchell was a pest for Steph Curry in their best-of-seven series, but he was pulled from the rotation for being an offensive liability and replaced by former Kings guard Terence Davis. We know how that turned out, resulting in a 50-point flurry from Curry that ultimately ended Sacramento’s season.

But that might have to be the case this time around. Not only are Ellis and Mitchell excellent and smart defenders, they can knock down shots, too. Since emerging into the rotation, Ellis is averaging 8.5 points on 49.3-percent shooting from the field and 45.7 from 3-point range, with 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals in 25.7 minutes. Mitchell, who started the season averaging just 3.6 points on 37.7-percent shooting from the field and 26.9 percent from 3-point range in 12.5 minutes, is now averaging 8.0 points on 50-percent shooting from the field and 41.4 percent from deep in 19.5 minutes since March.

Defense has to be the priority, of course. When you’re facing an offensive machine like Curry, you have to feel good if you’re the Kings knowing you have at least two reliable options to throw at him who won’t hold you back on the other end of the court either.

Don’t let up

So, you know how we mentioned all the flashy numbers since Ellis entered the rotation? Let us reiterate — since March 1, third in defensive rating, 13th in offensive rating and fifth in net rating.

Just reading those stats alone makes you feel good about where the Kings stand. Well, not necessarily. Their record during that stretch is 13-11. The math ain’t mathing.

Plus, since Monk has been out, they are ninth in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating — that’s top 10 in the league in both — but have just a 4-6 record in that period. It is unacceptable. That should be a recipe for a winning formula, but unfortunately for Sacramento, it hasn’t been.

But if you’ve watched these final games the Kings have played, you understand exactly how this happened. Sacramento has either blown leads or can’t close out games in the final minutes. It became a notorious trend amongst Kings fans where, while any other fanbase would enjoy a 20-point-plus lead, that wasn’t the case for the Kings.

They blew multiple double-digit leads and those haunted them down the final stretch of the season. That No. 6 seed we mentioned earlier that was up for grabs? It could have been theirs had they not blown some of those leads.

Again, the “what-if” game is tiring, and ultimately, too late.

They have to stay disciplined. They have to stay focused. And they cannot — under any circumstances — ever, ever, ever let up. If they’re up by 25 points, keep playing like you’re down by 10.

You win, or you go home. The Kings have “gone home” with late collapses way too often this season, especially recently. They have to change that approach Tuesday night or it will be a movie Kings fans have seen far too often.

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