The NBA season begins in the fall -- but to those closest to the game, the events leading up to the All-Star break are just the preamble. As we've seen in the past with teams such as last year's Boston Celtics, the second half of the NBA season is where legends are made and where playoff runs begin. No one is more aware of that than Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown.
Brown's "Beam Team," as they've become known, as been on a tear to start the season. The Kings were overlooked and underappreciated in the early-season power rankings, as pundits and networks kept hoping big-market teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls would turn it around. Instead, the Kings have fought their way to third place in the Western Conference, proving that Sacramento is a basketball city. But the real test begins as the NBA season heads into its second half, and coach Brown has let his team know that from day one.
"We Are The Hunted Right Now"
"This is going to be an interesting time for me," Brown told The Athletic. "I've told our guys this all along. The real season doesn't start until after All-Star break. The teams that know they don't have a chance mail it in, and the teams that do have a chance turn it up a notch. Or two. For us, sitting in this spot post-All-Star break means we have a target on our back. We are the hunted right now. I'm not sure where we sit as a team because this is the first time we've gone through this -- being the hunted."
Brown is right about the Kings having a target on their backs, especially as they head into the second half of the season facing a 10-game stretch against teams they'll surely meet in the playoffs. Those teams include the Suns and Clippers, as well as teams within striking distance of knocking the Kings down the standings such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. If the Kings wanted to find out who they are as a team, this is the stretch that will define a team's season and a franchise's direction.
"It's huge," Brown added. "But it's huge for the growth of the organization. Particularly for the guys in our nucleus. I say this to our guys all the time. It's easy to get into the upper echelon of your conference in the regular season. You gotta have a little luck. If you're healthy, you play hard, you're organized, you have a chance. Our schedule, if you look at winning percentage, has been favorable. There are some things that were in our favor. These last 25, we're going to go through these games experiencing something we've never experienced together. Teams are gunning after us. They're coming."
It's been 16 years since the Sacramento Kings made it to the NBA playoffs and two decades since they were controversially bounced out of the Western Conference Finals by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers. For the city of Sacramento, having a basketball team that is flying high above every other California NBA team is a victory in itself, but there's more at stake than just bragging rights. The Sacramento Kings are about to face their toughest challenge in the last decade and a half, and it starts with the first game of the second half of the season.
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