The Phoenix Suns host the Sacramento Kings this Saturday, the third among their four regular season Pacific Division matchups.
Sacramento (39-26) enters the game tied with Memphis for second in the Western conference. After a four-game winning streak, Phoenix (37-29) is alone in fourth, trailing the Kings and the Grizzlies by 2 and 1/2 games.
The Suns have beaten the Kings in their previous two games on Nov. 28 and Feb. 14, but with just a month left in the regular season, teams in the top-five standings are playing for home court advantage.
Sacramento is on schedule to make the postseason for the first time since 2006, breaking the NBA’s longest playoff drought. And at this late point in the season, the Kings’ success is not a fluke.
They’re led by All-Stars in point guard De’Aaron Fox and one of the league’s most versatile bigs in Domantas Sabonis, headed by first-year coach Mike Brown, who has a ten-year head coach résumé and was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors for the past seven.
During last offseason, the Kings signed free agent two-guards Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, who can stretch defenses with their solid outside shooting ability. In addition, rookie small forward Keegan Murray is a starter who is a strong All-Rookie First Team candidate (11.9 points, team-best 40.9% from deep, 4.6 rebounds per game), and backup four-man Trey Lyles (7.9 points, 48.9% shooter) are two of their other top players.
“I think people who don’t know the game like that don’t realize just how much coaching can change,” Chris Paul said to The Republic at the Suns’ Friday practice. “I think I told Mike Brown that last time we played against them is sometimes coaching and the confidence that they give players, or the system and whatnot, can change the whole dynamics of the team.
“So you see they got a lot of the same players, but they run a lot of different action. You unlocked a lot of different players, like Trey Lyles, who I think is a really good player. Fox has been good for a while, but when you unlock them and give them confidence and just make plays, now you got Malik Monk over there who’s just playing free.”
Paul understands what it’s like playing for teams who rise up the standings to achieve that, or exceed expectations for a playoff spot.
In his first season with the Suns, they were the West playoffs’ two seed and reached the 2021 finals after they missed the 2020 postseason in the Orlando bubble, and hadn’t been in the playoffs for 10 years until they hired Monty Williams as their coach in 2019.
That same year Williams was hired, Paul was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a package for their longtime All-Star and former MVP Russell Westbrook. Similar to the Kings this season, that 2019-20 season Thunder team was expected to be in a rebuilding mode. But the Thunder became league’s surprise team who went 44-28 and lost in the West playoffs’ first round Game 7 as the five seed to the four seed Houston.
The Thunder were led by Billy Donovan, who earned the 2020 NBCA (National Basketball Coaches Association) Coach of the Year award, then left the team after six seasons to coach the Chicago Bulls the following season.
Following Sacramento’s 122-117 win over the New York Knicks, its first nationally televised home game on TNT this season, Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal praised the Kings’ first-year head coach Mike Brown as a lock for Coach of the Year and said repeatedly said that team is “for real.”
Consider Shaq’s comment as a 180-degree turn from his memorably publicized “Sacramento Queens” diss 20 years ago when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers at the height of those teams’ rivalry.
Terrence Ross, who signed with the Suns on Feb. 15 after he reached a contract buyout agreement with the Orlando Magic four days prior, said the biggest adjustment he’s had to learn since he joined them is switching on who to guard in their defensive schemes.
When The Republic asked the Suns’ new backup wing who’s the hardest to guard on the Kings, he explained that they have too many weapons to account for.
“They got a lot of tools over there. They got speed, shooting, size, strength, so it’s never really just one person,” Ross said. “But they definitely move the ball. They’re really fast in transition, so anytime you gotta guard De’Aaron, you have to be aware of his speed.
“Anytime you guard Sabonis, his size, his passing ability. Murray, he shoots, there’s a whole bunch of that go a bunch of different things, so you just gotta be ready for anything.”