The playoffs are finally here, with the reigning champions rounding into form to mount a legitimate title defense at exactly the right time. But just because the Golden State Warriors finished the regular season playing their best basketball all year, are at last full-strength and drew their ideal postseason path doesn’t mean they’re getting out of the first round.
Ignore betting markets that make Golden State the most heavily favored lower-seeded team ever, too. The Sacramento Kings are fully capable of beating their Northern California rivals, and not only because the Dubs were unable to avoid wild inconsistencies throughout 2022-23.
In a wide-open Western Conference, Mike Brown’s upstart team has a chance to make some real noise. What could be louder for the Kings than dethroning the Warriors in a series played up and down I-80?
As Saturday’s Game 1 in Sacramento dawns, here are three bold predictions for the Warriors in their highly anticipated first-round playoff matchup with the Kings.
3. Red-hot Klay Thompson leads Warriors to (at least) one win
There’s only so much to take from the four meetings between these teams over the 82-game grind. Three of them came before mid-November, when Golden State was playing James Wiseman regular minutes, and the final one took place during the last week of the regular season, Sacramento resting its regulars with the three seed locked up.
Klay Thompson labored across those matchups, averaging 17.5 points per game on below-average efficiency. But it’s not like the Kings boast an array of versatile stoppers along the guard and wing lines who have the length, athleticism and anticipation to give a movement marksman like Thompson fits.
The 33-year-old’s in-season turnaround, remember, didn’t come until late November, after Golden State had already met Sacramento three times. Thompson is a much more effective player now than he was back then, finding the blend of aggressiveness seeking his own shot and patience within the flow of the offense that eluded him early in the season.
Thompson shot a scorching 43.2% on over 11 three-point attempts per game since the New Year, per NBA.com/stats. He’s been just as hot spotting up as launching off the dribble, key facing a poor Sacramento defense that will be stretched to its limits running Dubs shooters off the arc.
The Kings will have nowhere to hide Domantas Sabonis against Steph Curry and the Warriors' unique offense.
— Warriors Nation (@WarriorNationCP) April 11, 2023
It’s no secret who will be the focus for the Kings on that end. But Steph Curry’s mere presence will loom at least as large as his box-score production against Sacramento, constantly garnering outsized defensive attention that creates opportunities for his teammates.
Expect Thompson to be among the biggest beneficiaries of that dynamic throughout the series, getting clean catch-and-shoot looks from three and side-stepping overzealous close-outs for pull-up long balls. He’ll get plenty of chances as a primary option as well, sprinting off wide pin-downs that will force Domantas Sabonis to meet him on the other side of screens, where Thompson has one of the quickest shot releases in basketball.
Don’t be surprised when Klay catches fire in the first round, almost single-handedly stealing the Warriors a first-round win—or maybe more—with a vintage display of jump-shooting.
2. Golden State keeps Domantas Sabonis in check
Sabonis is the Kings’ undisputed offensive fulcrum, a unique hub of playmaking and scoring from across the floor. Sacramento’s league-best offensive rating jumps to 120.5 when he’s on the floor and dips all the way down to 111.5 with him resting, per NBA.com/stats, a nine-point difference that’s the team’s biggest discrepancy.
On paper, the Warriors seem ill-equipped to keep Sabonis in check. He’s a bruiser on the block who never shies away from embracing physicality and has rare footwork for his size. Stout as Draymond Green and Kevon Looney have proven one-on-one, they’ll give up several inches and tens of pounds to Sabonis while battling him in isolation and fighting him for position on the glass.
Not unlike Curry’s sweeping influence on the Warriors’ offense, though, Sabonis’ effect on the Kings’ attack extends far beyond individual numbers. His ingenuity in screening and dribble hand-off actions at the elbows, on the perimeter and initiating delay offense from the top of the key has a bigger impact on Sacramento than anything Sabonis does by himself.
The burly seven-footer finished 2.6 possessions per game via post-ups during the regular season, tied for 16th-most in the league, per NBA.com/stats, also ranking middle-of-the-pack in efficiency. Sabonis isn’t an overwhelming offensive rebounder, either. The Kings are an average offensive rebounding team, and actually grab more of their own misses when he’s on the bench.
Could Sabonis garner additional opportunities from the post and make a bigger difference on the offensive glass given Golden State’s proclivity for switching and small-ball? No doubt. It’d be surprising if Sacramento didn’t try to exploit that defensive strategy in the first round.
But Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Thompson are all solid post defenders, even facing size mismatches, and the Warriors won’t hesitate shading defenders toward Sabonis or even aggressively double-teaming him in those instances. All three of those guys have leveled up as rebounders in the last calendar year, too, while Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and Gary Payton II each crash the glass like forwards.
Make no mistake: Sabonis will probably get his regular numbers in the first round.
But the notion he’ll totally dominate the interior like some blend of Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic against a Golden State squad whose tallest player stands 6-foot-9 is misguided, both an overestimation of Sabonis’ real utility as a scorer and an underappreciation of the Warriors’ versatility and activity defensively—at least when they’re at their best.
1. Warriors take down Kings in six games
The problem for Golden State is that offensive ceiling has been hard to come by in 2022-23, especially on the road. The mostly random whims of opponent three-point shooting have a lot to do with the Warriors’ inability to string together stops away from Chase Center, but their collective penchant for competitive letdowns when the going got tough definitely factor in there, too.
That shouldn’t be a problem against Sacramento given stakes of the postseason, plus the Dubs’ palpably positive vibes heading into the first round. With Wiggins and Payton II available together and Steve Kerr tightening his rotation to nine players, Golden State will also embark on another playoff run with more defensive talent on hand than its had all season.
The Kings, by contrast, can’t count on reaching another level defensively under the postseason magnifying glass. If anything, Sacramento’s personnel and scheme deficiencies on that end are bound to be leveraged further by opponents who have the luxury of homing in on them over the totality of a seven-game series.
Golden State’s two-way peak is simply higher than the Kings’, even before accounting for these teams’ laughably disparate levels of postseason experience. Combined with Curry’s presence as easily this matchup’s best player and the advantage for a road-weary team provided by a two-hour drive between arenas, the Warriors seem set take down Sacramento in a competitive, high-octane series Northern California will remember forever.