The arena was rocking. The fans were on their feet. Players on both sides took turns looking up at the scoreboard, wondering what it would take to prevail over a high-powered opponent.
The running, gunning, up-and-coming Kings challenged the two-time defending NBA-champion Golden State Warriors to a shootout and almost beat them at their game Friday night at Golden 1 Center. The Warriors finished with a flurry and escaped with a 130-125 victory, but they left town with a growing respect for a young Kings team that could be setting itself up for more valuable prizes in the future.
When it was over, Golden State star Kevin Durant — probably the NBA’s Most Valuable Prize in free agency next summer — made his way across the floor, offering hugs, handshakes and high praise for the Kings, who nearly knocked off the Warriors for the second time in three weeks.
“I just like the growth of each player,” Durant said. “You can see that these guys are getting better.”
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For many years, there has been a perception — a reality, really — that the Kings can’t lure top-flight free agents to Sacramento, but new realities have a way of changing old perceptions. This is still a small-market team mired in a 12-year playoff drought, but something undeniable is happening here.
De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Nemanja Bjelica, Iman Shumpert and Marvin Bagley III are thriving under coach Dave Joerger. They’re young, they’re fun and they’re one of the fastest teams the NBA has seen.
“Them guys fast, man,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein gotta be two of the fastest people in the league. It’s ridiculous how fast they are. ... They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with for sure, and sooner rather than later.”
The Warriors needed monster performances from all their All-Stars and former MVPs to emerge with the victory. Stephen Curry put up 35 points, seven rebounds and six assists, Durant posted 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, Klay Thompson scored 27 points, and Green had 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
And all that was barely enough to beat the Kings, who played much of the game without Bagley and Shumpert.
“They’re good,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence, (and) they’re playing fast. They have a lot of shooters and they can put pressure on you, and they don’t quit.”
Actually, they’re just getting started.
Before the game, Durant was asked how quickly perceptions can change and how soon Sacramento might become an appealing free-agent destination.
He paused. He looked down. Then, he looked up.
“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” said Durant, who has informed the Warriors he will opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. “Sacramento has always been a team that tries to build through the draft, and they always have some young pieces, some young assets, but I feel like this is the first time since I’ve been in the league that they’re starting to come together even more and present a good product of basketball on the floor, so hopefully, guys start to look at this place as somewhere they want to go. I mean, new arena, and the fan base is pretty excited about the team, so anything can happen in the NBA.
“All you need is just one guy.”