DeAaron Fox

Kings using playoff loss to Warriors as motivation this season

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Six months after their magical 2022-23 NBA season came to an end, the Kings still have the seven-game playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on their minds.

Rather than dwell on it, though, they’re using it as fuel for the 2023-24 NBA season.

“I think the biggest motivation for me was losing the first round of the playoffs,” Kings guard Davion Mitchell said Monday at Media Day. “Knowing we had a chance to get to the next round, and we don't know where we would have went after that. 

“We had a really good team and we were rolling, but losing that helped me and helped the team [find] better motivation for this season.”

That was the similar theme circulating around the Kings practice facility Monday, the same building they walked out of 155 days prior following their season-ending Game 7 loss at the hands of a historic Steph Curry 50-point performance.

After the Kings made their first postseason appearance since 2006, the rest of the league -- understandably so -- wasn’t convinced Sacramento could compete against the then-defending champs.

Sacramento took the early 2-0 series lead before things moved to the Bay and got ugly. The Warriors won three consecutive games, two at Chase Center and one in front of Kings fans at Golden 1 Center, but the Kings bounced back in Game 6 to force a win-or-go-home Game 7.

Game 7 quickly became the “Steph Curry Show” as the Warriors superstar dropped a 50-piece and single-handedly carried Golden State across the finish line.

“Honestly I think it lingered for everybody a lot,” Kings forward Trey Lyles said. “I think everyone knows we let the series get away from us. But it's a building block for us, it's a young team and their first time in the playoffs together. 

“So it's something that I think is going to be in the back of our minds throughout the entire season and something that's going to motivate us to be better.”

De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, the Kings’ All-NBA duo, learned valuable lessons about themselves and the team during the Northern California showdown. Both players sustained respective injuries but never made excuses and, more notably, never stopped playing.

Fox recently told NBC Sports California’s Deuce Mason and Morgan Ragan on the “Deuce and Mo” podcast that the loss to the Warriors “stung” for quite a while. The Kings point guard revealed that he couldn’t even watch the rest of the playoffs until the Finals.

The 25-year-old has spent his entire NBA career in Sacramento and had to deal with the weight of the playoff drought since coming into the league. Year after year, he was used to starting his offseason in early to mid-April.

Not last season, though.

“Knowing what it felt like to be one of those teams where you don't know when the last day your season is going to be. There were times when April 14 or April 15, whatever it is, that was the last game of the season,” Fox explained. “So going into it, especially going into Game 7, that could've either been our last game or we could have had two more weeks of basketball. 

“I think that's what stung the most, knowing that we had a chance to be playing for a long period of time. But at the end of the day, I feel like it helped us and it motivated us even more. And I think with us bringing back most of the same guys and really the same rotation back, I think it helped all of us.”

While it wasn’t the outcome they had hoped for, the Kings learned something about themselves that had held them back all season.

Sacramento ended last season ranked 24th in defensive rating (116.0). Away from Golden 1 Center, it was a whole different story, as they finished the regular season ranked eighth in road defensive rating. They also finally answered coach Mike Brown’s season-long plea to turn up the physicality and intensity in the series against the Warriors.

But it was too late.

Now, months later, the Kings recognize that if they can match that same type of defensive approach from the start of the season all the way to the end, they could be, as Sabonis stated, “a scary team.”

“I think just having the experience of last year and being in the playoffs and seeing what needs to be done, I think is very beneficial for us,” Fox added. “But like Mike has said before, we have to be playing defense and being physical from Game 1 to Game 82, and then however many games we play after that, rather than going into the playoffs and then trying to amp that up.

“So we have to try to do that as much as possible before getting into the postseason where you're just trying to flip a switch.”

Sabonis said the playoff exposure was "big" for recognizing the team's potential on the defensive end. He believes it helped set a standard for how the Kings should be playing defensively this season, right from the jump.

Kings veteran forward Harrison Barnes seconded those comments.

"The biggest thing is you can't start in April," Barnes said. "We can't just jump into when the playoffs are here, we have to start from Day 1. We have to start by building that foundation and approaching it with a sense of hunger."

Kings guard Malik Monk never shies away from speaking his mind. When asked what motivates him the most next season, he shared a very direct response.

"Defense. That's it," he said. "We knew if we played defense, we'd probably be in the Western Conference Finals. So I think that's all we're worried about right now, is playing some defense."

The Kings and their fans don't have to wait long for a rematch with the Warriors. Their first home game will be against Curry and the Warriors on Oct. 27 at Golden 1 Center, and then face them again five days later in San Francisco.

While Mitchell said it's "just another game" and their only mindset is to win the game, Sabonis is most excited for the reception by fans.

"I'm just thinking about the fans," Sabonis said. "Game 1 at home, against them, I think it's going to be electric again and it's going to be a lot of fun."

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