SAN FRANCISCO -- The Sacramento Kings just told us all where we can shove our moral victories.
Hey, getting this far is already a win!
Look, at least you broke the playoff drought, you can build from here!
No shame in losing to the champs, keep your head up!
Forget every single bit of that noise.
You know that Kings team that had lost three straight games to the Golden State Warriors? The upstarts that many expected to bow out after a valiant effort against a more experienced, merciless championship team that smelled blood in the water on a home floor where they went 33-8 during the regular season? Nowhere to be found during Friday night's Game 6.
"People don't think we would be here. Didn't nobody think we would be here but us," Kings guard Malik Monk said after the game. "So that's all the confidence we need. Coming into this crazy arena, man, it gets crazy in here -- it get loud in here too as well, and we're the only people we got out there on court. So we just pat each other on the back, get in the huddle, talk about it, and just stay together."
Not that long ago, the Kings were the laughingstock of the NBA, owners of the longest postseason drought in North American sports. After their punishing, dominant, relentless 118-99 Game 6 win over the Warriors on Friday, they're now one home victory away from dethroning the champs and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals.
A strong start was a point of emphasis for the Kings in Game 6, and they certainly took it to heart, blazing out to an 8-0 lead. Even with the Warriors fighting back on the scoreboard, the energy from Chase Center fans was nervous, with a gnawing inkling that they might not be cheering for the better team.
"We were ahead at the end of the first quarter by two, it didn't feel great," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "You could kind of sense that they were getting better shots than we were, and they were putting more pressure on us defensively."
What transpired from there was an absolute masterclass on both ends of the floor. Listening to the Kings talk, it's clear that Coach of the Year Mike Brown's message about what they need to do has been received loud and clear: play fast, play physical, spray the ball to 3-point shooters. They did all of that and more in a game in which they held the mighty Warriors offense to under 100 points to deliver their worst home loss of the season.
Points in the paint, second-chance points, fast break points, 3-pointers, field goal attempts -- essentially every meaningful category went in the Kings' favor in Game 6.
"We wanted to hit first, hit second, hit third, hit last, and I think we did a good job of that tonight," Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox said after the game. "Especially with our pace, I feel like we were in control basically the entire game tonight. From start to finish, I feel like this is probably the best game that we've played this year."
In their nightmares, Warriors defenders will see a haunting, blurry image that somewhat resembles Monk, who scored a team-high 28 points and went 9 of 10 from the free throw line. Ever the floor general, Fox had 26 points and 11 assists on 10-for-18 shooting with a broken index finger on his dominant left hand. Kevin Huerter, whose playing time had dwindled in each game of the series during a rough shooting slump, gave the Kings 29 hard minutes, finally breaking the seal on the hoop with three backbreaking 3-pointers.
Rookie Keegan Murray's maturation over the six games of this series seems like six full years, as he played 45 minutes on Friday night, knocking down four 3-pointers en route to 15 points and 12 huge rebounds. And despite fouling out in just 23 minutes with a left eye that looked like Rocky Balboa's, Domantas Sabonis collected nine offensive rebounds -- half of his team's total of 18 -- to help Sacramento win the possession game.
In an elimination game on the home court of the team that has won four championships in the last eight years, the largely inexperienced Kings broke out their best win of the year. Simply remarkable. They seemed like a different team than the one we saw over the last three games, but, if you ask them, what we saw on Friday night was just the Kings getting back to being themselves.
"We've had a great spirit. We have all year. We responded all year," Huerter said after the season-saving win. "Our offense has been asleep, I think, for most of the series and we just knew if we could get back to ourselves, we could continue this series, and we did that tonight. But our confidence never wavered."
Emotionally, the Kings played with the necessary desperation and freedom of a team with nothing to lose. But they also made some significant tactical alterations, limiting the minutes of veteran Harrison Barnes and defensive specialist Davion Mitchell in favor of more minutes for Huerter, plus the insertion of little-used guard Terence Davis to keep as much shooting and speed on the floor as possible. Their talents were bolstered by using 6-foot-9 stretch-big Trey Lyles as the backup center, where he notched a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes while spreading the floor for Monk and Fox.
"It opened everything up for us," Monk said of the small lineups. "We was able to spray, make plays, and just hit shots, and that was big for us."
The small-ball lineups -- strongly championed by Kings analytics coach Robbie Lemons and assistant Luke Loucks until finally being implemented by Brown -- gave the Warriors fits on both ends, and were instrumental in finally putting the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. Every time it looked like Golden State was going to embark on one of its signature runs to come back from the dead, the Kings were right there with a 3-pointer or a fast break layup.
The defense was suffocating, one step ahead of every split-action, back-door cut or weakside screen the Warriors tried to execute. It's hard to remember even one open shot from the Warriors, who made just 38 percent of their field goals, compared to the tremendous looks the Kings repeatedly generated.
After the incredible effort by the Kings, the stage is set for a heavyweight bout of the highest order in Sunday's Game 7 back at the rambunctious Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. If we see the version of the Warriors from Game 5 and the Kings that showed up for Game 6, we are in for a finale befitting of one of the most entertaining first-round series in recent memory.
"I mean, every sports media person out there -- and I would do the same thing if I was in your guys' shoes -- but, you know, they don't give us a chance. Which is fine," Brown said after Game 6. "Like I said, we got to go earn it. Tonight I thought our guys did a good job earning it.
"But the job's not done. So we've got to see how we're going to respond in a Game 7 for the first time as a group."