Midway through the second quarter of Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown huddled his team up. Up 11, his message was clear: Keep. Pushing. These guys can’t keep up with us.
Here’s the bad news for the Warriors: Brown might be right.
Over their dynastic decade, it has been the Warriors’ signature style to outrun opponents, ranking first, fourth and third (twice) in pace in their title-winning seasons.
They’ve used small-ball lineups, unrelenting speed and constant ball movement to play a style no team has been able to defend — let alone replicate.
But now the Kings, holding a 2-0 lead entering Game 3 in their first playoff appearance since 2006, are beating the Warriors at their own game.
“The biggest thing coming into the playoffs with a new group, everyone talks about physicality, but we don’t want that to slow down our pace,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes told ESPN. “All season long we’ve played fast, we’ve played loose, so we try to continue that moving forward.”
According to Second Spectrum, the Kings have had an average possession length of 14.1 seconds through the first two games, the second fastest by an opponent in any playoff series against the Warriors under Steve Kerr.
Even on half-court sets, the Kings are moving quickly. Their average possession length has been 15.3 seconds, also the second fastest of any playoff opponent against the Warriors under Kerr. In these half-court sets, the Kings are averaging 1.15 points per possession, the highest offensive efficiency on half-court sets for a Warriors playoff opponent during Kerr’s tenure.
“We feel our best chance is to be who we are and that’s playing extremely fast,” Brown said prior to Game 1.
The Warriors’ attempt to keep up has been as futile as it has been damaging; they’re turned the ball over 35 times through the first two games, up from their average of 15.7 per game in the regular season.
“[We’ve] just got to be able to get off to a better start in terms of playing fast but not in a hurry,” Stephen Curry said after Game 2. “That’s the line that we try to find, that sweet spot and that balance, especially with the way they’re guarding us. You’ve got to have some counters to their pressure because they are trying to extend their defense out. Playing fast into that sometimes can get you in a little bit of a rush.”
The Kings have outscored the Warriors 41-14 off turnovers.
“Be quick, but don’t hurry — that summarizes everything about the game,” Kerr said Wednesday. “Our guys have been in a hurry. We showed them most of the turnovers from Game 2 and frankly, most of them have been unforced. Most of them happened because we were in a rush. … It’s just making sound decisions and simple decisions and not forcing the issue … slowing down just a tad will give us better decision making.”
In addition, while the Warriors usually thrive in transition, they’re averaging just 0.83 points per transition play in this series. The Kings are averaging 1.03.
Playing this quickly has been part of the Kings’ DNA all season long. And in part, they have the Warriors to thank for it.
After facing Golden State three times within the first month of the regular season, the Kings learned that to have a shot at beating the defending champs, they’d need to keep up with them, first and foremost.
“We were so gassed,” Domantas Sabonis told ESPN. “It was like, damn, this is how they run? We were playing fast already, but once we played them, that helped us get into shape and carry on. We knew if we were going to play the Warriors, we couldn’t be gassed in those first four or five minutes. It’s all about the conditioning.”
The Kings dropped those first two games to the Warriors, both at Chase Center, in addition to the team’s final regular-season matchup at Golden 1 Center, though the Kings were without several rotation players. Their lone regular-season win against the Warriors was on Nov. 13 in Sacramento.
“Now in these fourth quarters, as we go up and down, you look at everyone’s face on the court — theirs and ours — everyone looks gassed, but we’re still trying to run,” Sabonis said. “We’re sticking to it.”