With only 69 seconds remaining in last night's Sacramento Kings-Charlotte Hornets matchup, it seemed the Kings would stroll to a nice Sunday evening victory. Sacramento was winning 123-115. De'Aaron Fox had just stolen a bad inbounds pass thrown by Terry Rozier and taken it coast-to-coast before he was fouled on a dunk attempt. After review, the foul was found to be flagrant.
The scene is now set. The Kings are winning by eight points with 1:09 remaining. Per flagrant rules, Fox now had two free-throw attempts and Sacramento would be given the ball. Usually, being up eight with less than a minute and a half left in a game means victory is all but assured. It was not for the Kings, who somehow managed to squander that eight-point lead entirely in that timespan and lost, 127-126. How did this happen? Let's go on this journey together.
It started, as close games always do in the NBA, with the free throws. Fox missed both of his after the flagrant foul, not terribly shocking since he is a shockingly bad free-throw shooter (67 percent this year) for someone who has the ball in his hands all the time. The Kings now have possession, up eight, with 1:09 to go. They successfully inbound the ball. Then, instead of doing everything possible to burn the clock further, Fox drives into the lane with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. As all Hornets defenders converge on him, Fox dishes it to Marvin Bagley, who then goes up for a shot with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. A bad decision and it cost him as all-world rookie LaMelo Ball stripped the ball on Bagley's way up. The Hornets run out in transition and Rozier nails an above-the-break three. With 52.4 seconds remaining, the Kings lead 123-118.
A five-point lead is far more tenuous than an eight-point lead, but there's still less than a minute left. Sacramento remains very much the favorite to pull this out. They get the ball out of the backcourt after the Rozier three. Fox, again making a puzzling decision, does not use his blazing speed to simply run past the halfcourt line but instead stands there before passing to Bagley again. This normally wouldn't be a terrible idea until someone remembers Bagley has hit 54 percent of his free-throw shots this year.
Bagley takes the ball past halfcourt and the Hornets foul him with 45 seconds to go. Bagley bricks both of the shots from the charity stripe. Charlotte boogies up court and Rozier goes up for a three-point attempt and Harrison Barnes is (correctly) called for a shooting foul. The Hornets now have three free-throw attempts, down by five, with 33 seconds to go. Rozier hits them all. Sacramento now leads 123-121 with half a minute left.
The situation has changed for the Kings. They can no longer just run out the clock because the Hornets are within one basket. So Sacramento brings it up, Fox dribbles around at the top of the key for a bit, then drives into the lane and hits a floater to go up by four. The score is 125-121 with 23 seconds remaining. Hornets ball.
Charlotte hits a three out of the timeout thanks to a nice pick-and-pop by P.J. Washington. Most importantly, he did so quickly. The Hornets now only trail by one, 125-124, with 17 seconds left on the clock. The Kings, who I would imagine are in full panic mode at this point, call a timeout to draw up a way to get Buddy Hield (84 percent free throw shooter) the ball. They do so, and Hield is fouled with 10 seconds left.
Then Hield misses the first free throw. He hits the second, but the damage is done. The Kings now only lead by two with 10 seconds to go. The Hornets do not have a timeout. Charlotte scrambles up the floor and throw the ball around in a tizzy desperately trying to find an open shot before Malik Monk took it into the paint. That's when the Kings finally finished the choke job. Center Richaun Holmes not only gave up a layup to Monk, he fouled him in the process. With one second to go. The culmination of all the small mistakes now finally converge into one big disaster.
The game is now tied. Monk hits his free-throw. 126-125, Hornets. The Kings do not have a timeout. Hield hoists up a Hail Mary shot as time expires. It misses. Sacramento comes away with a defeat in what is arguably the worst loss of the entire season by any team. A tragedy filled with no triumphs. Absolutely brutal. Maybe the Kings are indeed cursed.
It really is unbelievable. Each wrong decision was made at precisely the right time to give the Hornets a chance. Holmes' foul on Monk at the end. Fox not holding onto the ball for longer when they were still up by two possessions with just under a minute to go. Even Fox jumping at Washington's pump fake and giving him a slightly more open look from deep sunk them.
It was a catastrophic failure by everybody on that team. That's how bad the loss was. The blame cannot fall entirely on Holmes for the foul or Bagley for the missed free throws or the handful of various mistakes Fox made down the stretch. Everyone takes the blame.