It wasn’t that long ago when the Spurs were an NBA title contender, and the Kings (or KANGZ, as they were referred to at this time) were a Western Conference basement dweller. In 2023, the roles have been reversed. Sacramento clinched the team’s first playoff appearance since 2006 this week, while San Antonio secured the highest chance at the number one pick in the draft.
After playing two straight competitive games with potential playoff teams, the Spurs will look to get over the hump in Sacramento on Sunday. Their most recent loss came to the Golden State Warriors, who shot the lights out, defeating San Antonio 130-115. That game saw the return of Keldon Johnson, who led the team with 22 points. The Silver and Black’s leading scorer is doubtful for this contest against the Kings, appearing on the injury report alongside key contributors like Jeremy Sochan and Devin Vassell, who are out. It looks like the shorthanded Spurs will need to find another answer yet again.
Sacramento has dominated the season series this year, going 3-0. In the last contest between these two squads, the Kings rode two 30-point performances from their dynamic-duo De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis in a 119-109 victory over the Spurs. This marked the start of Malaki Branham’s scorching hot February, as the rookie guard had 22 points and 5 assists off the bench. Branham has been playing well lately, averaging 17.5 points over his last 4 games, and they will need them to overcome the NBA’s best offensive team.
San Antonio Spurs (19-58) vs. Sacramento Kings (47-30)
April 2, 2023 | 5 p.m. CT
Watch: CW 35 | Listen: WOAI/KXTN
Spurs injuries: Khem Birch – Out (knee), Charles Bassey – Out (knee), Keita Bates-Diop – Questionable (ankle), Keldon Johnson – Doubtful (foot), Romeo Langford – Questionable (abductor), Doug McDermott – Probable (elbow), Jeremy Sochan – Out (knee), Devin Vassell – Questionable (knee)
Kings injuries: Matthew Dellavedova – Out (finger)
What to watch for
The Spurs have been resting a lot of their young core down the stretch this season, and it’s left some fans wondering why. Are they flat out tanking? Are players dealing with injuries more serious than we know? Are they trying to get a better look at the more fringe players on the roster? The answer is likely a mixture of all of these things. Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News tweeted this on Saturday:
With Sochan hurting and having far exceeded number of games he played last season at Baylor, and Vassell coming off surgery, Spurs are being cautious with both. Sitting them also gives coaches a chance to study Mamu, Champagnie, Barlow, etc. as they audition for jobs next year.— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) April 1, 2023
It looks like these last 5 games of the season will be a proving ground for guys trying to make the roster next year. With the NBA announcing its new collective bargaining agreement, the Spurs will be able to fill three separate two-way roster spots, meaning they will be able to add one more player who can split time between the G-League and NBA. There is an extra roster spot up for grabs.
Their current two-way players, Dominick Barlow and Julian Champagnie will get ample opportunities against Sac-Town to show the coaching staff what they’ve got. They’ve stepped into major minutes off of the bench down the stretch, and should get even more run with so many Spurs potentially sitting this game out. Alongside them are fan favorites Blake Wesley and Sandro Mamukelashvili, who have shown some flashes of their potential late in the season. Mamu has been by far the most consistent of the bunch, and has seemed to gain the staff’s trust, as he’s started 4 games since signing with the team in March. The coaches will certainly be watching to get an idea of who will be back next season, and so should you.
Will Malaki Branham be the number 1 option on offense?
As mentioned above, Branham has been playing some of his best ball since the All-Star break, lately. His last matchup with Sacramento in February was one of his strongest games of the season. Without Johnson, Vassell and Sochan, he may be given the keys yet again.
The Spurs lineup may look similar to the one they ran out against the Jazz on March 29th, with Branham, Zach Collins, Tre Jones and the wing pair of KBD and Champagnie. With no KJ, Vassell or Sochan, they leaned on Jones and Collins as the initiators of their offense, working out of the high post and pick and roll. It was Branham, though, who led the team in scoring, dropping in 21 points. He did it on opportunistic drives to the bucket, and a couple of shots from range.
It will be interesting to see if Popovich makes it a point to get Branham more touches in a position to score. Seeing the rookie guard operate out of the pick and roll more would be worthwhile, and it may make sense to run him off of a few more off-ball screens to see if he can keep up the hot shooting he displayed against Golden State. Being more involved in initiating the offense to build off of his improving play could signal some trust gained from the coaching staff.
The battle of the bigs
It’s nice to see Collins back in the starting 5. Especially with one of the league’s best big men coming into town. Sabonis has been one of the biggest reasons for the Kings success this year, averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists on 61/35/75 shooting splits. He actually operates similarly to Collins, as a playmaker in the high post who can take mismatches down to the block, while spacing the floor on Fox’s drives.
Collins has been one of the Spurs best players since the trade deadline, averaging 16 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. As mentioned above, he was one of the focal points on offense the last time San Antonio was without its leading scorers. Sabonis is not a stellar defender, but he is certainly respectable. In a matchup where neither team plays a lot of defense, there is a possibility that a lot of points are scored, and these two players will likely be at the forefront of that action.