NBA

Sacramento Kings suddenly grinding out wins, but will their turnaround last?

By Sports Desk February 11, 2021

Three weeks ago, it appeared this season was shaping up to be like each of the previous 14 for the Sacramento Kings.

A 115-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 20 marked the sixth defeat in seven games for the Kings and dropped their record to 5-10 – third worst in the Western Conference.

A month into the season and it was already looking like Sacramento would match the Clippers' dubious record of 15 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth from 1976-77 to 1990-91 for the longest playoff drought in NBA history.

Now one-third of the way into their season, however, the Kings have pulled within a half-game of the eighth-placed Golden State Warriors in the West on the heels of a 7-2 stretch. on Friday night, they take on the Orlando Magic.

The turnaround began two nights after the blowout loss to the Clippers with a 103-94 victory over the New York Knicks. The Kings' performance that night was emblematic of how they've managed to climb back into the playoff picture, but is their formula for winning sustainable?

Against the Knicks, the Kings found themselves up 89-87 with just under four minutes remaining after New York went on an 8-0 run. Sacramento then went on a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Tyrese Haliburton three-pointer with 2:35 to play to put the game away.

The Kings ended up scoring 14 of the game's final 21 points, and over the next few weeks displayed a proficiency for closing out tight games.

Prior to January 22, the Kings had the NBA's third-worst fourth-quarter point differential at minus-2.8 while ranking 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring with an average of 25.5 points. Since then, they are averaging 28.1 points over the final 12 minutes of games.

It's been in the game's final moments, however, that the Kings have really excelled. Their 10.0-scoring average in the final three minutes since January 22 is the best in the NBA.

The Kings are finding ways to grind out victories and have a league-high eight wins this season by five points or less, but this typically is not a blueprint for success in the NBA.

The Kings' 5.9-point differential in their wins is the lowest in the NBA, and no team have finished a season with a point differential of less than 6.0 in their victories since 2005-06, when the Portland Trail Blazers were at 5.6 and the Atlanta Hawks were at 5.8. Sacramento, however, do not want to be too closely linked to those teams, as Portland were a league-worst 21-61 while Atlanta were not much better at 26-56.

Winning close games rarely leads to long-term success, seeing as only one team in the last 30 years have reached the playoffs while having a point differential of less than 8.0 in their wins – the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.8.

In fact, in NBA history only two teams have reached the playoffs while outscoring their opponents by fewer than 7.0 points in their wins and those instances came well before man even walked on the Moon – the 1954-55 Rochester Royals at 6.6 and the 1948-49 St Louis Bombers at 6.8.

Grinding out wins over the long haul of a full season takes its toll and it may have caught up with the Kings in their last time on the court.

In Tuesday's 119-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Kings seemed to tire down the stretch, missing seven straight shots over a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter as the Sixers went on a 10-0 run to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead with just over four and a half minutes to play.

Sacramento were playing for the third time in four days, so they were playing on tired legs, but it's also possible fatigue was setting in because each of their previous three games went down to the wire and the minutes are piling up for their stars.

De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield each played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday and have regularly been playing in crunch time.

Since January 22, the Kings have four players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes – Haliburton (1st, 10.7), Fox (11th, 9.9), Hield (12th, 9.7) and Harrison Barnes (18th, 9.4).

The Nets are the only other team to have more than two players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes in that period.

Sacramento have counted on Fox down the stretch, as his 11 field-goal attempts in late and close situations since January 22 trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (15) and the Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (13) for the most in the NBA. Late and close situations here are defined as the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.

Fox's shots, however, weren't falling on Tuesday.

Over a five-game stretch from January 30 to February 7, Fox led the league with an average of 13.2 fourth-quarter points (minimum three games) while shooting 57.8 per cent. He misfired on 10 of 13 shots, though, while scoring seven points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter.

Haliburton's fourth quarter – as well as his third quarter for that matter – was even more forgettable. His final points on Tuesday came on a three-pointer with 2:00 remaining before halftime.

It was a sub-par showing for someone who is shooting at a staggering clip when the game moves to the fourth quarter.

The 20-year-old rookie is making 60.6 per cent (40-of-66) on all fourth-quarter shots – tied for fourth in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 109 players with at least 50 shot attempts in the fourth – and has been connecting at an even higher percentage from beyond the arc.

Shooting an absurd 61.5 per cent on three-pointers (24-of-39) in the fourth quarter, Haliburton is on track to become the only player seeing regular minutes to shoot at least 60 per cent from deep in the final quarter in the last 15 seasons. Since 2005-06, Kyle Korver for the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks has the highest fourth-quarter shooting percentage on three-pointers at 57.4, among players with at least 50 3-point attempts.

Haliburton has also made seven clutch three-pointers this season to trail only James (11), the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte’ Graham (eight) and the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (eight) for most in the league. Here, clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when a game is within six points.

Considering Haliburton is knocking down 44.1 per cent of his shots in the game's first three quarters, his fourth-quarter shooting has been especially baffling. His increase in shooting of 16.5 per cent from the first three quarters to the fourth is the biggest in the NBA this season (minimum 125 field goal attempts in first three quarters and 50 in fourth).

His shooting has been exceptional but hitting a rookie wall could be a concern. Tuesday marked the 22nd game of the season for Haliburton – the exact same number of games he played all of last season collegiately at Iowa State.

The fourth-quarter exploits of Haliburton and Fox have played a big role in Sacramento's climb in the standings, but the climb is just beginning. The season is only a little more than seven weeks old and time will tell if the Kings have the strength to continue their playoff push.

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