Kings guard De'Aaron Fox dribbles against Damyean Dotson of the New York Knicks last season. (Photo retrieved from USA Today)

CRAWFORD ON THE COURT: Comeback Kings fun to watch when they don’t blow huge leads

This is the second of four updates on the Kings throughout the 2018-19 season.

The NBA is just over halfway through the regular season and in a fantastic state with must-see games seemingly every night. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference — only one of the 15 teams has a winning percentage lower than .452 versus seven such teams in the Eastern Conference — teams fluctuate in the standings from week to week.  

Don’t forget about the Beasts in the East, either: the first-place Toronto Raptors with Kawhi Leonard, the Milwaukee Bucks with the Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and the Philadelphia 76ers with the Big 3 (Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and new addition Jimmy Butler). And quietly, Boston will still be a major threat come playoff time, despite early struggles to integrate Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into the lineup.

Meanwhile, the Kings continue to hover around .500 at 22-21. They play at the second-fastest rate in the league at 104.95 possessions per game, due largely to guard De’Aaron Fox, who is turning heads with his quickness and emphatic dunks.

The Kings have won and lost in comeback fashion. Their fast pace allows for fantastic comebacks: Despite deficits of 19, 19, and 15, the Cardiac Kings beat the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively.

In all three games, the team found its groove in the fourth quarter, including a three-point buzzer beater for the win by guard Bogdan Bogdanovic to shock the Lakers, 117-116 on Dec. 27.

Lately, however, Sacramento’s pace has allowed other teams to make comebacks. The Kings lost five of six games despite holding large early leads.

The Kings usually take care of the ball but didn’t in a Jan. 8 loss at Phoenix, notching a season-high 26 turnovers. This devastating loss to the struggling Suns — who recorded only their 10th win of the season — came after the Kings led by 19 points at halftime.

Similarly, the Kings had nine-point advantages over both the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter this month but couldn’t finish them off.

As with every young, developing team, the question is consistency. Admittedly, it is fun to watch a team rally from a double-digit deficit to steal a game with seconds remaining. Recently, the Kings have either shot the ball incredibly well or gone completely cold — sometimes it has been a tale of two halves.

After a 40-point second quarter against Phoenix, the Kings scored a mere 14 points in the third quarter, giving up their hard-earned 19-point lead.  Granted, it was an away game on the second night of a back-to-back, but we are talking about a team that was 9-32 at the time and playing without their leading scorer, Devin Booker.

For the Kings to take that next step in maturity, they must play better at crunch time. In all three games against the gold-standard Warriors this season, the Kings have played great basketball for 45 minutes. Being the championship team that they are, the Warriors have made plays in the clutch to win all three matchups by a combined 10 points.

On the bright side for the Kings, Buddy Hield, or “Buddy Buckets,” is playing the best basketball of his career this season. He is shooting the 3-ball at a high clip (44.3 percent) with superb confidence and leads the team with 20.1 points per game (ppg). His scorer’s mentality showed during a six-game stretch in December, when he averaged 28.2 ppg, including a career-high 37 points in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 19.  

Marvin Bagley, the second overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, suffered a left knee bone bruise against the Warriors on Dec. 14. His absence showed; the Kings missed out on 12.7 ppg and 6.1 rebounds per game (rpg) off the bench along with Bagley’s tenacity and shot-blocking ability. He is a key piece to the rotation, despite being just 19 years old. And it’s no coincidence that the Kings dominated the Orlando Magic in Bagley’s return on Jan. 7 — snapping a four-game losing streak.

As we approach the trade deadline in February, it will be interesting to see if the Kings make any moves or wait until the strong free-agent market this summer with lots of available cap space at their disposal.

Kings fans must be excited with the progression of the young team. As predicted in the first update, Sacramento reached 20-20 through the roller coaster of its midseason struggles. Hovering around the .500 mark on the road, where the Kings are 9-11, is exactly where any team wants to be, but they need to win more games at home, where they are 13-10, to challenge for a playoff berth.

With more consistency by maintaining leads and finishing games in the fourth quarter, the Kings should be able to match their 27-win season last year by the All-Star break, a feat none predicted to start the 2018-19 season.

By Jackson Crawford

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