SACRAMENTO -- It isn’t how you start a game, it’s how you finish it.
That has been Mike Brown and the Kings' theme this season, and it continued Tuesday night as they fought back from a 24-point deficit and defeated the Golden State Warriors 124-123 to advance to the NBA In-Season Tournament quarterfinals as West Group C winners.
The way the Kings finished it -- with Malik Monk's game-winning shot -- had fans at Golden 1 Center on their feet, exhilarated to finally celebrate a win they'd desperately longed for against the Warriors. Golden State had won the previous two meetings this season, and beat Sacramento in a seven-game playoff series last season.
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Sixteen games into the season, Brown continues to play with various rotations and experiment with different lineups. With new players such as Sasha Vezenkov and Chris Duarte, who have seen their minutes fluctuate, or players such as Davion Mitchell, who has fallen out of the rotation with the surge of two-way guard Keon Ellis, Brown has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up at any given time.
Monk's role, though, is very clear and set in stone.
The 25-year-old guard is the Kings' Sixth Man, stepping up and providing energy and rejuvenation. Dating to last season -- his first in Sacramento -- Monk has done more than simply give the starters a breather. He has won games for the Kings.
When they need him to maintain a lead, he actually helps add to it. When things aren’t going right and the Kings need a spark, he gives it to them. Monk understands his assignment and delivers with unmatched swagger and confidence.
Monk hasn't started once in his 93 regular-season games in Sacramento. Even when his Kentucky-turned-Kings teammate De’Aaron Fox missed time earlier this season with an ankle injury, Brown instead turned to Mitchell and Ellis in the starting lineup. The coach admitted he didn't want to lose Monk's leadership of Sacramento's second unit.
Brown previously called it a “unique” role that only a player such as Monk can fulfill, and Monk certainly lives up to it with great pride.
“I love playing basketball,” Monk said after the win over the Warriors. “I take pride in going out there knowing that it might be my last time playing. So, I can’t take anything for granted. That’s all I do. I put heart into it and go out there and give it my all.”
Monk entered Tuesday's game for Fox at the 5:48 mark in the first quarter, and contributed seven points and one rebound. He was subbed out early in the second quarter and didn’t return until 5:40 remained in the third quarter.
Brown later said he sat Monk for so long because he wasn’t impressed with his defensive effort and believed he allowed Warriors guard Klay Thompson too many easy buckets. But when the Kings needed a jolt inside a snoozing Golden 1 Center, Brown turned back to Monk.
Seventeen seconds after checking back in, Monk nailed a 28-foot 3-pointer. Roughly four minutes later, he sank another trey, bringing the Kings within 11 and forcing the Warriors to call a timeout.
That timing was huge for the Kings, who built off the momentum and went on an 11-4 run to close the third quarter. It then came down to the fourth quarter, when reigning NBA Clutch Player of the Year Fox typically takes over, but it was Monk’s turn to play hero. He had eight points, one rebound, one block, one assist and one steal in the final frame.
With 19 seconds left and the Kings down by one, Fox dished the ball to Kevin Huerter, who found Monk in the corner. Heavily contested by Andrew Wiggins, Monk dribbled right to the baseline, then crossed over to the left and darted into the paint before putting up an off-balanced jump shot that banked right into the basket. That ended up being the game-winner after Steph Curry’s ensuing deep triple tipped off the front of the iron and fell short.
What started as a potential embarrassment on national TV for Sacramento quickly became a friendly reminder to Kings fans that their team belongs and can compete amongst the best. It also was a reminder that Brown was right about Monk's role.
"I'm a firm believer in it's not about who starts the game, it's who finishes the game," Brown said. "And Malik gives us huge punch off the bench, and he gives us, as a staff, a lot of versatility. We can play a lot of different lineups with him coming off the bench. And at the end of the day, if we want to end the game with him on the floor, we can.
"I said last year, Sixth Man of the Year was a no-brainer, it should've gone to Malik. Obviously he's, in my opinion, the leading candidate for it again this year. And hopefully people will recognize how valuable he is for us coming off the bench."
The energy and spark that Monk brings on the court is contagious to his teammates.
"He's big for us," Fox said. "We've seen what he can do in the pick and roll, play-making with [Domantas Sabonis] or JaVale [McGee] or whoever it may be, and him getting downhill just creates so much for us. And when he's doing well defensively, getting blocks, just being able to start our transition offense, I think it's hard to beat us when he's playing at a high level like he was tonight."
Monk was benched for nearly an entire quarter, yet he helped lead a Kings comeback and sent the Warriors home with an epic game-winning shot. It truly was symbolic of Monk being at the right place at the right time.
And it was proof that he was exactly where he needed to be.