Role reversal: Raptors flip the script on upstart Kings to open tough trip

SACARMENTO — A once unthinkable thought is now believable: The Toronto Raptors could learn something from the Sacramento Kings.

Imagine, one of the NBA’s most successful organizations for the past decade, with eight playoff appearances in nine years and an NBA title to show for it, learning from an organization so inept for so long that they inspired an adverb for incompetence: Kangz.

Such as: draft Marvin Bagley instead of Luka Doncic as Sacramento did in 2018 — perhaps the worst in a long line of draft-day screw ups. The Kings are gonna Kangz, that kind of thing. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2005-06, the longest streak in the league.

Just last season when the Raptors were in town, Sacramento was in chaos. The Kings were on the verge of firing their head coach, Luke Walton, and weeks away from trading Tyrese Haliburton in a deal that brought back Domantas Sabonis, and at first was panned for some classic Kangzing. Haliburton is leading the NBA in assists and is headed for an all-star and all-NBA season in many eyes, starring for Indiana.

But in a remarkably short period of time, the Kings have become one of the NBA’s best stories. As the Raptors rolled into the Golden 1 Center, it was Toronto muddling along, seemingly without a clear direction.

The Kings? They are the most fun thing on wood. They lead the NBA in scoring (120 points a game) and offensive efficiency with a cut-hard, pass-often attack implanted by former Canadian national team/Raptors head coach and long-time NBA assistant Jay Triano, who was hired by Mike Brown when the latter took the job last summer.

Sabonis is the fulcrum, a nightly triple-double threat, and will be an all-star for the third time and quite possibly earn all-NBA honours himself. He’s just 26.

After every home win – and there have been may, as the Kings started the game with a 27-19 record and comfortably in possession of third place in the West – they send beams of light into the night sky from the roof of the arena. When Sacramento is closing in on a win, the crowd chants “light the beam.”

It didn’t happen Wednesday night. Instead, the Raptors showed up and showed out in a 113-95 win that was as complete as any Toronto has delivered this season.

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Toronto led by 17 to start the fourth quarter and – for a change – locked it down even with a raucous Kings crowd trying to turn every Sacramento basket into the spark that would start a comeback that never came.

The Raptors got something from nearly everybody. They had six rotation players in double figures and the only one that wasn’t – Scottie Barnes – finished with seven points, 10 assists, and six rebounds while playing outstanding defensively. Pascal Siakam led in scoring with 26 points, but also had 11 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots. Precious Achiuwa played wonderfully off the bench, finishing with 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting and guarding from all points on the floor, while fellow reserve Chris Boucher joined him with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting.

The Raptors shot 49.5 per cent from the floor, which was enough even though they shot just 12-of-40 from three.

Their defence was the reason why as they held the Kings to their lowest single-game scoring total of the season and under 100 points for just the second time in 46 games and forced them into 19 turnovers.

The Raptors played their most inspired defence of the season, arguably, from the moment the ball went up. They held the high-octane Kings to 23 first-quarter points and led 58-50 after the first half. Defensively they were connected: slowing the ball on the break, crowding it in the lane, making sure that De’Aaron Fox and Sabonis – the keys to the Kings attack – saw multiple bodies at every turn and the passing lanes were a thicket of arms and hands. The Kings turned it over eight times in the first half.

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The Raptors looked organized and committed, elements that have been missing as they have – outside of forcing opponents’ turnovers – been one of the poorest defending clubs in the league.

Call it a crisis of confidence or a lack of belief, the Raptors have been missing something.

Does that matter, defensively?

“I think it does from the standpoint of being connected,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.  “Guys understand they’re supposed to go out and pressure the ball, and if they do get beat, they have confidence that somebody’s gonna be there to fix the mistake, catch breakdowns and keep playing through the entire possession.”

There was more of it in the third, as Toronto held the Kings to 17 points in the period on just 8-of-20 shooting and forced six more Kings turnovers. The Raptors put together a 14-4 run in the middle of the period to put Toronto up by 20. Every point was either scored or set up by Siakam, with a pair of Fred VanVleet steals as sparks.

And for all the Kings’ success this season, their defence – ranked 22nd heading into Wednesday’s game – is still a work in progress.

The Raptors found seams in it with one of their most unselfish displays of passing all season.

Can one win turn around a season? Regardless, can the Raptors recapture the energy and momentum organizationally they seemed to be able to summon at will over the past decade?

From the Raptors’ point of view, the Kings quick turnaround should be an inspiration.

Trading away Haliburton (and Buddy Hield) was a bold move and had to hurt, but in Sabonis they got a big man who can pass and score — and they freed up a log jam between Fox and Haliburton and point guard.

In the off-season, they identified a need – more shooting – and were aggressive in the pursuit: trading a lottery-protected 2024 first-round pick to Atlanta for Kevin Huerter (shooting 41.2 per from deep and scoring a career-high 15.5 points a game) and signing Malik Monk in free agency for two years and $19 million, solidifying their bench unit.

Who knows what the Raptors are going to do at the trade deadline, but the Kings offer at least some proof that making a trade from your core and even trading a future draft pick doesn’t mean the world ends. The players the Kings have acquired are still young. They nailed their first draft pick (fine-looking rookie forward Keegan Murray, taken fourth overall) and look poised to bounce from the lottery to the playoffs with a deep, sustainable team.

What they have working for them too, is their own growing sense of belief. On Tuesday, they signed general manager Monte McNair and assistant general manager Wes Wilcox to contract extensions, while Brown is the favourite to be coach of the year.

“I know my mindset wasn’t coming in here just to make the playoffs or be better. My attraction here was I felt we could win here,” said Brown, most recently an assistant with the Golden State Warriors and previously a head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and Los Angeles Lakers.

“In my opinion, everything was here to win at a high level. So for me, that’s what I’ve been preaching since day one. Anything less than that, in my opinion, won’t be a success. To everybody’s credit, everybody I’ve talked to at the beginning of this process and all stages of the process have all had the same vision. Nobody just wants to just make the playoffs and be happy about it and have a good summer. No, screw that: We’re playing, we might as well play to win.”

The Raptors used to be that team. On Wednesday, they very much looked like it again. Time will tell how long it is before they are again. But if the Kings can do it …

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