Life on the margins of the NBA’s playoff picture is fickle. Drop eight-straight games following the injury of a budding All-Star, as the Nets sputtered without Caris LeVert, and your season spirals toward the lottery. Respond immediately with a seven-game win streak and incredible improvements from mercurial young guards, and you launch back into the playoff picture.
The uncertainty lingers within each game as well. The Nets paced Sacramento by seven entering the fourth quarter of Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matinee when Kings point guard Yogi Ferrell stripped D’Angelo Russell at half court and cruised to an open-floor layup. Only Ferrell doinked the bunny, corralled his miss and whiffed again on a second attempt. Brooklyn stormed back down the hardwood, Treveon Graham completing a three-point play at the line, and sparked a critical 16-4 run. The Nets limited Sacramento to just 9 points in the fourth quarter, keying a 123-94 victory over an equal playoff-hopeful upstart. “It didn’t feel good,” Kings head coach Dave Joerger said. “Brooklyn’s in a really nice rhythm right now. They’re really difficult to defend.”
The Nets have claimed 17 of their last 22 outings, a streak many within the organization credit to an early December, players-only film session led by the team’s veterans. Brooklyn responded the following day by outlasting the Toronto Raptors 106-105. A five-game win streak in October afforded the Kings a head start on a season in which Sacramento does not possess its own first-round pick. Both teams have maintained treading water amongst their respective conference’s postseason contenders thanks to a balanced cocktail of young stars and experienced pieces. The Kings and the Nets are the Spiderman meme, pointing at each rebuild’s ahead-of-schedule success.
“It takes a lot of time to build a culture, to push a style of play, to get everyone to buy in,” Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think we’re still growing. I think there are still more things we want to implement, but it was not an easy process. To feel like we’re starting to reap the fruits of our labor a little bit, I feel good about the direction we’re heading.” Brooklyn and Sacramento rank third and seventh, respectively, in win percentage over games decided by five points or less, equally seeing greener playmakers decipher staunchier opposing defenses in crucial possessions. Watching De’Aaron Fox progress in crunchtime high-screen action presents optimal teaching moments. “What is a good shot, what isn’t, is even more at a premium; making sure you’re solid in your coverages, communication,” Joerger said. “A lot of teams are running pick-and-rolls more than ever to get certain matchups they’re looking for in switches and stuff like that. They just keep learning and grabbing onto stuff.”
Sacramento personnel credit veteran swingman Iman Shumpert for aiding a reset in the Kings’ culture. He’s acutely nicknamed his club “The Scores,” an indicator that each player within the Kings’ rotation has the ability to score, especially within Sacramento’s absurdly-paced offense. The Kings rank second in the league in orchestrating 105.8 possessions per game. The team’s inexperienced pieces have melded within that frenzy. “We just play together. We just care. It’s a different, whole feel. We know we can win, our organization knows we can win. It’s a different energy in the building, it’s a different energy in the locker room,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It’s exciting to come to work. That’s the biggest difference. When I first got here, it was like, ‘We’re wasting a lot of time. We’re wasting a lot of time coming to work.’ Now it’s like there’s not enough time.”
De’Aaron Fox is the engine revving Sacramento’s breakneck pace, but any of Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic or Justin Jackson can push the ball past half-court in transition and all have the green light to fire step-back triples or pull-up, mid-range jumpers alike. “The chemistry is pretty high,” Fox said. “Everybody knows where their comfort spot is and everybody knows where each others’ is.”
At this moment, there may be no equation in the league more balanced than Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. Brooklyn’s two lead guards have seemingly taken turns spearheading momentous victories. When Dinwiddie scorched the Rockets, his 25 fourth-quarter points powering Brooklyn’s incredible overtime win in Houston, it was Russell, he who sat the final 7:01 of regulation and all of the extra period, who showered his backcourt mate with celebratory water amidst a postgame interview. Dinwiddie then played the role of supporting cast member one game later, as Russell hung 40 points in Orlando during the Nets’ 21-point comeback effort over the Magic. Russell dropped 31 points in Brooklyn’s blowout on Monday, while Dinwiddie happily contributed 11 off the bench.
“He can get to wherever he wants. He can get into the lane. When he’s hot, that’s trouble. And the same thing vice versa with myself,” Russell said. “I feel like we’re all putting ourselves in the position to complement each other on the offensive end whenever it comes down the stretch, or we need a play, we know what we’re going for. It makes it that much easier for us.” Added Dinwiddie: “We try to make every decision in every specific moment, what gives our team the best chance. I feel like it’s really as simple as that. Everybody wants to look at us all the time, but we have the same goals. It’s pretty easy when you keep the focus where it needs to be.”
Brooklyn stands at 25-23 following Monday’s win, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Kings’ 24-23 mark has the team 1.5 games out of eighth in the vaunted West. A season ago, both franchises flashed the potential of greater campaigns in the not-too-distant future. Barring doomsday scenarios, both clubs should surpass their 2017-18 win totals before the All-Star break. They may both feasibly miss the postseason altogether. The playoff crunch is unpredictable. The long-term future of Sacramento and Brooklyn suddenly feels quite the opposite.