Bucks star praises Kings after beating them in Sacramento
The Kings came into Monday’s game riding high since the All-Star break. They improved to 8-1 after winning in Phoenix on Saturday and have been in a dogfight with the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
But Monday represented one of their toughest challenges to date: The healthy Milwaukee Bucks with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo back in the lineup after missing three games with a hand injury. It was a humbling experience for the home team in front of a lively crowd at Golden 1 Center, where the Bucks outscored the Kings 80-62 after halftime.
For the first time in a while, the Kings were confronted by a fully formed contender. They lost, 133-124.
“That’s a team that’s won a championship,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said after a 35-point night. “That’s a battle-tested team and they made us pay for every mistake that we made.”
After beating the Suns without Kevin Durant — and the New York Knicks when Jalen Brunson left at halftime, the New Orleans Pelicans, missing Zion Williamson, the Los Angeles Clippers, sitting Kawhi Leonard, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, twice without star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — the Kings didn’t get a chance to play a team without its best player Monday.
Sacramento instead was offered a lesson from a team with championship-level experience. The Bucks still have their core that won the 2021 NBA Finals, and currently have the best record in the NBA at 49-19. The “Greek Freak” put together an MVP-caliber performance with 46 points on 19-of-28 shooting, adding 12 rebounds, four assists and a steal.
Antetokounmpo has been through the battles the Kings hope to face. He reached the pinnacle with his Finals MVP performance and is hungry for more, hoping Milwaukee’s healthy core can run through the gauntlet of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bucks have championship expectations, while the Kings will be experiencing the postseason for the first time as a group when they inevitably clinch their first berth in 16 years over the coming weeks.
Antetokounmpo was asked in the visiting locker room afterwards what the Kings need in order to take that next step, like his Bucks team once did, from playoff participant to actual contender.
“Time,” he said. “They’re playing great basketball ... playing fast, creating open 3s, finding open guys. They have a great big (Domantas Sabonis) that can pass, that can score, that can rebound. He’s playing unbelievable. Great point guard (Fox). Great shooters.
“(They need) time . ... They’re having an unbelievable year and will make the playoffs, probably go deep into the playoffs. It’s going to be hard to come in here and beat them. So, it’s a matter of time. They’re going to figure it out and be a very, very good team. But they need to go to the playoffs. They need to win a series, lose a series, play a game seven, win on the road, and that’s going to give them experience. And they’re going to be a really, really good team in the future.”
Much has been made of the Kings winning their 40th game over the weekend, an achieve
ment fans and the organization haven’t seen since the last time they went to the playoffs in 2006. But head coach Mike Brown and his players have quietly scoffed at 40 wins being some remarkable achievement.
This team, eventually, has far bigger goals.
“My goal is to win a championship at the end of the day,” Fox said at Monday’s shootaround. “I wouldn’t say coming into the season I was looking forward to 40 wins, no.”
The Kings, of course, would love to replicate the Bucks’ success. But it took Milwaukee five postseason trips before breaking through and beating the Suns to win the elusive championship in 2021. To Antetokounmpo’s point, it took his team time to learn from its shortcomings, while the Kings are still weeks away from a chance to figure out what theirs are in the playoffs.
Brown was asked before Monday’s game about what stands out about the Bucks’ championship pedigree.
“They don’t ever get too high or too low,” he said. “They just keep coming at you. And they don’t let much impact them at all. To have that resolve when you need, when things aren’t quite going your way all the time . ... And then a certain sense of physicality. You need to have a certain physicality to be a championship team.”
Afterwards, Brown said his team’s lack of physicality was a reason Antetokounmpo couldn’t be stopped, particularly in the second half. He scored 19 points in the third quarter alone, helping Milwaukee come back from a 15-point deficit in the second quarter to eventually win the game.
The Bucks made timely shot after timely shot, with Khris Middleton adding 31 points while making 5 of 8 3-pointers. Center Brook Lopez scored 23 points and was plus-21 in his 36 minutes. As Brown predicted before the game, the Bucks weren’t shaken by taking Sacramento’s best punch early in the game.
“We played a great first half,” Sabonis said after recording his 10th triple-double of the season with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists. “Second half, we didn’t get it done on the defensive end. We let players get hot and it kind of was a snowball effect for everyone else.”
Only six of Antetokounmpo’s 28 shot attempts came from outside the paint. He attacked Sacramento’s weak interior defense from the jump, and the Kings had no answers. Brown cited the physicality that he mentioned pregame.