SAN FRANCISCO — In an otherwise quiet moment before the Sacramento Kings took the court for their most important playoff game in nearly two decades, Harrison Barnes gathered his teammates around him and urged them to focus on the task at hand so they could take the series back to Sacramento.
At the ripe age of 30, Barnes is considered a voice of wisdom on a team brimming with youth. The Kings are so bouncy and bubbly that they seem almost carbonated. Perhaps their postseason inexperience is serving them well in their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors.
After all, the basketball gods were not favoring the Kings ahead of Game 6 on Friday night. They were on the brink of elimination after having lost three straight, a grim stretch that included a loss in Sacramento on Wednesday. De’Aaron Fox, the team’s All-Star point guard, was coping with a broken finger on his shooting hand. And, of course, the Kings were facing Golden State, a championship-tested team that appeared to have found its rhythm.
So, what did the Kings do? They assembled one of their most complete games of the season in a 118-99 victory that tied the series at three games apiece and ensured a Game 7 in Sacramento on Sunday afternoon, signaling to everyone — as if anyone needed proof at this late stage — that their resurgence is no fluke.
There was never any question that the Kings were talented and brash. But they are resilient, too.
“It’s no pressure for us because didn’t nobody think we would be here,” said the Kings guard Malik Monk, 25, who scored a team-high 28 points off the bench. “Man, I’ve never been to a Game 7, so I don’t know what to expect. I just know I’m going to go out there and play 110 percent, give it my all and continue to do what I’ve been doing.”
The winner of the game on Sunday will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals starting Tuesday. The Lakers advanced by defeating the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, 125-85, in Game 6 of their first-round series.
“It’s a big opportunity,” said Fox, 25, who scored 26 points with an avulsion fracture on his left index finger, an injury that he sustained earlier in the series. “Everybody doesn’t get to experience a Game 7, and not a lot of people get to experience a Game 7 in Sacramento.”
He added, “From start to finish, I feel like this is probably the best game that we’ve played this year.”
The Warriors remain a mystery. Even as defending champions, they have not exactly carried themselves with an air of inevitability, as they did in the 2014-15 season, when they coasted into the playoffs with a 67-15 record, or in the 2017-18 season, which they punctuated with their third title in four years.
This latest iteration of the Warriors — even with their familiar core — is an abstract painting. There is little continuity. Momentum is a foreign concept. Some nights, they produce basketball as high art. Other nights, they look uninspired or — gasp! — a little old. During the regular season, they had the one of the best records in the league at home and one of the worst records in the league on the road. Go figure.
But Golden State’s victory at Sacramento in Game 5 was one of those rare road triumphs. And it seemed a strong indication that the Warriors had unearthed some of their former magic, that they were, according to Coach Steve Kerr, “a different team” than they had been earlier this season or even earlier this month. More cohesive. More determined. And fully capable of elevating their play in the postseason.
Back home for Game 6 on Friday, Golden State was in a position to do what it had done so many times before — win and advance. Instead, the Kings went with a smaller lineup, pushed the pace and still managed to outrebound the Warriors, 53-42. Golden State shot 37.2 percent from the field. Stephen Curry missed three free throws and committed five turnovers.
“They was a little tired,” Monk said. “We were a little younger than they are, so we knew we could take advantage of that. So we’re going to try to do the same thing on Sunday.”
Curry, 35, who scored 29 points in the loss, cited “mental errors” as the culprit.
“I don’t know if that was an energy thing or a focus thing,” he said, “but you have to be able to learn those lessons quick. Because we put ourselves in a situation where we have to be the team that’s playing with desperation.”
Before they closed out the regular season as the No. 3 seed in the West, the Kings had gone 16 seasons without a playoff appearance. It has been 19 seasons since they won a series.
“We’re going to have to play at our best,” the Kings Coach Mike Brown said of Game 7. “They’re the champions. We’re going to have to play at an elite level for 48 minutes against these guys because they’re going to bring it, trust me.”
After wins this season, the Kings have been lighting a huge purple beam from the roof of Golden 1 Center, their arena in Sacramento. When the team goes on the road, the players bring a bit of the beam with them, affixing a pair of pocket-size, purple-hued strobe lights to stalls in the visiting locker room.
Those lights were flashing after the game on Friday, a small celebration that the Kings hope foreshadows a more significant one.