Warriors struggling to keep up with smaller, faster Kings in NBA playoffs

Warriors struggling to keep up with smaller, faster Kings originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO – This first-round Warriors-Kings NBA playoff series was destined for seven games not because the teams are evenly matched but because, with one notable exception, each team’s weakness is the other’s strength.

The Warriors are a flock that varies its effort and focus. The Kings are a pack that plays with consistent intensity.

The Warriors were a mess on the road. The Kings posted a better record away from Sacramento than within the roaring confines of Golden 1 Center.

The Warriors have considerable postseason experience, most of it resulting in rousing success. The Kings are new to suiting up in late April.

Which brings to the tale told Friday night in Game 6. The fresh Kings and their young legs tied the series 3-3 by making Golden State’s experience look more like weariness in a 118-99 victory at Chase Center.

The clearest example came after 7-foot Kings center Domantas Sabonis banged and bumped his way to foul trouble. Coach Mike Brown replaced him with 6-foot-9 Trey Lyles. Sabonis is traditional insofar as he is most comfortable in the paint. Lyles is a stretch-5 – aka, Small-Ball 5 – a capable and willing shooter from distance.

The move, made partly out of necessity and partly with the persistent prodding of assistants Robbie Lemons and Luke Loucks, created enough space to allow the hiccup-quick Kings to shift their best-in-the-NBA offense into overdrive.

“It was a great adjustment by Mike to go small and to get more space in the halfcourt and open up the floor a little bit,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr conceded. “They were able to make 17 threes tonight and I don't think they have made that many in the series. They obviously, having lost three in a row, felt the need to make a shift. And that was their big move tonight, and it readily paid off.”

With De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk skittering around defenders and blasting toward the cup, the floor expanded for such shooters as Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray and Lyles. They started firing from distance.

If the Kings had shot as they did through the first five games – 30.1 percent from deep – the Warriors could have withstood the barrage. But they shot 37.8 percent, slightly above the 36.9 they posted in the regular season and enough to suck drain the gusto from Golden State’s defense.

“It just opened the court for me and Fox,” Monk said. “It opened everything up for us. We were able to spray, make plays, and just hit shots. That was big for us.”

Sacramento’s offense, scoring only 2.8 points fewer than Golden State over the first five games, hit climbed to 118 while its much-maligned defense limited the Warriors to 99.

By the time the game reached the fourth quarter, the defending NBA champions were sagging and bending over, hands on knees. The Kings, by contrast, kept coming until Kerr emptied his bench with 3:45 remaining and the Warriors trailing 116-97.

“It was a different look,” Stephen Curry said. “And they have the ability to do that with certain personnel. They pushed those buttons and it worked. So, we have to be able to make the adjustments, because you assume it's going to be the same, or a similar vibe.”

The most evident similarity between the teams is that both prefer to play with pace. Fast. Uptempo. Pressure the defense. Kerr wants it, Brown pleads for it. Sacramento’s fourth-quarter burst carried it to wins in Games 1 and 2. And when it surfaced in Game 6, the Warriors showed signs of wear.

“If we can play tomorrow, we'd play tomorrow,” Brown said. “But we want to keep pushing the ball. Not just because it's the Warriors. That's how we played all year. We played fast all year.

“In order to beat teams in the playoffs – all these teams are great – we’ve got to even try to find a way to play faster while trying to play some defense, too.”

The Kings accomplished that in Game 6, and the Warriors didn’t have enough to generate one of their patented Chase Center comebacks. The team that wiped out double-digit deficits 13 times in the regular season, all at home, got within 8 (102-94) with 8:15 left but four minutes later were trailing by 17.

That was the effect the small lineup had on most any lineup the Warriors put on the floor.

“They were a little tired,” Monk said. “We were a little younger than they are, so we knew we could take advantage of that. We're going to try to do the same thing Sunday.”

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This series practically guarantees intrigue, with two excellent coaches that know and trust their rosters but are willing to wade into adjustments as the series moves along.

The Kings made the move that earned a Game 6 victory. Now, it’s on Steve Kerr and his accomplished veterans.

Game 7 should be fascinating. Arena abuzz, desperation in the air, the Kings trying to go to places the Warriors have been while they try to plant their flag in Sacramento soil.

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