Sacramento Kings' playoff hopes run through Domantas Sabonis

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Friday, April 28, 2023

DOMANTAS SABONIS IS the funnel through which the NBA's best offense flows, and it all begins when he grabs a defensive rebound and dribbles up the court, his 7-foot body proceeding with its uniquely equine gait. He generally picks up his dribble near the top of the key, holding the ball in one hand away from the defender like an adult playing keep-away from a child.

From here, with the ball extended and his Sacramento Kings teammates fanned out around him, the fun begins in earnest. His teammates begin a vertiginous series of laps around him. He either gives the ball to one of them or lets them pass through, and each time he screens the moving defender, then the next one. When the offense is humming -- routinely during the regular season but intermittently through the first four games of Round 1 against theGolden State Warriors-- Sabonis looks like he's using the ball as a baton to conduct an orchestra.

There is a certain destructive grace to Sabonis' game. The destruction comes from the incessant picks and the shoulder-fired drives to the hoop, many of which end with him scoring on point-blank shots that look like a man shoving a tennis ball into a garden hose. The grace, more difficult to discern, comes from his touch around the rim and the court vision that helped him rank fifth in the NBA in total assists.

"Domas is the anchor," Kings guard Malik Monk says. "Everything goes through Domas."

The familiarity of a seven-game playoff set presents unique challenges, and Sabonis, befitting his stature, has been the focus of the Warriors' defensive strategy. Normally, the court shrinks in the playoffs, but Sabonis is finding himself facing wide-open spaces. While turning a two-game series deficit into a 3-2 lead heading into tonight's Game 6, Golden State has sagged off Sabonis. The Warriors have clotted the lane to cut off his charges to the rim, which almost always veer toward his dominant left hand. His averages through five games -- 17.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists -- obscure how much he has been forced to alter his game.

It looks like this: Warriors center Kevon Looney stands in the middle of the key, his arms wide, his weight shifting from foot to foot like a soccer goalie, 10 feet from Sabonis, who can seem lost without constant physical contact. His playmaking ability has been almost completely neutralized, and the Kings' fate might depend on how well Sabonis can counter the Warriors' scheme and get back to his regular-season form: 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and the second-most triple-doubles in the league.

When he's right, Sabonis is setting screen after screen, routinely three or four per possession, one after another, spinning left and turning right, ball screens, off-ball screens, screens intended to create backdoor cuts, screens meant to free jump shooters, so many screens. He led the NBA with more than 1,500 dribble handoffs this season -- roughly 19 per game -- most of them to Monk or a whirling Kevin Huerter. And how many non-DHO screens, the ones that freeDe'Aaron Foxfor his feathery jumpers in the lane or take out a defender near midcourt? "I'm sure somebody keeps count of screens," he says, "but nobody ever tells me." Just when you think he can't possibly set another one, he sets two more. Keeping track would seem impossible. Sabonis laughs and says, almost apologetically, "Maybe I set too many screens."

At its root, the screen is basketball's most generous act. I am willingly exposing my body to harm so that you may have the requisite space to release a shot. His teammates, asked to describe him, repeatedly use the same word: Selfless. Not unselfish, but selfless. The distinction feels important.

THERE IS A marked difference between the way Sabonis speaks about himself and the way he speaks about his teammates. Talking about himself, he tends to look down, deflect, disarm -- anything to alter the course of the conversation. When he's talking about his teammates, his bright blue eyes engage, his voice inflects, his entire body animates.

Told that several of his teammates, unprompted, called him selfless, Sabonis says, "It's cool to hear them say that, but I'm just playing basketball. I want to do what's right for the team and what's right for my teammates. I might have a shot, but then I think, 'Keegan's just made three 3s,' or 'Kevin's made three 3s,' or 'Fox is rolling.' It's not about me. It's about the team, and I want what's best for the team. This whole city goes nuts because the whole team won. It's not like, 'Oh, Domas or Fox or Keegan won tonight.'"

(In Game 2, Sabonis was shoved, unwillingly, into his worst nightmare: under a spotlight that became his and his alone. Lying on the floor in the middle of the lane after a Warriors defensive rebound, Sabonis grabbed Draymond Green's leg with his arm. Green extricated himself and stomped on Sabonis' solar plexus, earning himself a one-game suspension. Sabonis, for Games 3 and 4 in San Francisco, became the target for Warriors fans, who booed him for having the audacity to be stomped. Green explained his actions by saying it was the second time a Kings player had latched onto him during a scrum for a loose ball. In Game 5, predictably, Green was the target of Sacramento fans. Just as predictably, he basked in the animosity, scoring 21 points.)

Sabonis came to Sacramento last season in a controversial trade with Indiana and decided it was the perfect opportunity to remake himself and his new franchise. It was quite a chore. By now, even the most casual NBA fan is exhausted by the Kings' litany of wretchedness: 16 straight seasons without making the playoffs; recurringly mystifying draft selections; the ritualistic firing of coaches. The book in reserveTerence Davis' locker after the team clinched a playoff berth -- "Breaking Curses" -- might well have been an instruction manual. Sabonis, however, was a two-time All Star before arriving in Sacramento. Clearly, the franchise was in greater need of reclamation.

Sabonis looked around and saw an emerging (now fully emerged) star in Fox and a relatively new front office untethered to past failures. He looked at himself and saw someone who could re-create himself into something entirely new: a leader. In six previous seasons, he'd never been called upon to be more than a good player and a solid citizen, but here was an entire franchise turning its desperate eyes to him.

"To have that on you, to have that challenge -- it lit a fire under me," he says. "I thought, 'OK, we have to take things more seriously.' I've got to do things I'm not used to doing. I'm not that vocal, but I'm going to have to be. I have to push myself to become a better person, leader and player. It's awesome, because a challenge like that doesn't come along much. There's a whole organization trusting you to do this, to start it off and get it moving. It's a great feeling when people believe in you."

He started by doing what doesn't -- or at least didn't -- come naturally. He started in June by inviting a group of his teammates to his home in Napa to drink wine, work out twice a day and watch the NBA Finals. Over the course of a long weekend, they were able to get to know each other off the court and watch the Warriors employ coach Mike Brown's defense for the last time before he became the head coach of the Kings.

"I thought it was important," Sabonis says. "I had a new role, and I'm a firm believer in the more you hang out with your teammates, the more you get to know them, the more you like them -- and then it's easier to have someone's back."

Without knowing it, Sabonis was at the forefront of installing Brown's own version of Kings' re-creation, which he describes by saying, "Don't set a bar too low for us to attain as a group." Out of the guys' weekend in Napa grew a series of teammate dinners in Los Angeles and Las Vegas; they knew each other's travel schedules and arranged to meet up whenever they happened to be in the same city. They laughed and talked and met each other's families, and in his quest to learn about his teammates, Sabonis learned something about himself:

He could lead.


The fact that Sabonis; his wife, Shashana; and son, Tiger, live there is a story unto itself. When Domas was traded to Sacramento, Shashana -- a Los Angeles native who has always loved wine country -- immediately told him, "We have to live in Napa." Domas agreed, as long as they could find a place on the side of town closest to Sacramento, which means roughly 60 miles from Golden 1 Center. It is not a common, or easy, commute, and Domas has a second home closer to the arena when it's not feasible to make the drive.

For his first few years in the NBA, Sabonis abided by the general rules espoused by general managers and coaches; he lived as close to the arena as possible to maximize sleep. He'd wake up at 8:45 for a 9:30 practice and walk to the arena. "And because I'm from Spain, always the siesta," he says with a half-smile that acknowledges the cliché.

Like most professional athletes, Sabonis is a creature of habit. Anyone wishing to speak with him in the locker room before games is notified by a friendly Kings PR staffer that any and all conversation must be completed before the countdown clock on the wall hits 70 minutes. At that time -- not before nor after -- Sabonis takes the court to begin his pregame shooting.

His life runs on a series of grooves that provide familiarity whether that night's game is in Sacramento or San Antonio. That's important if you're in three or four different places in a week. But this was a change that bordered on upheaval.

"Now I realize the drive actually gets me more ready than sleeping in longer," he says of his commute. "It's definitely helped me organize myself. Now I have to wake up early, plan my day, have breakfast, have my coffee and head out. That drive -- by myself, focusing on what I have to do that day -- is the best way for me to prepare to do my job."

IT WASN'T EASY to see Arvydas Sabonis play basketball if you lived in the United States during his prime. The best Soviet players were spectral, appearing only every four years (if that, given the boycott-happy 1980s) while being prohibited from entering the NBA by the strictures of the Iron Curtain. Arvydas was, for his time, something entirely new: 7-foot-3 with remarkable passing ability, lithe moves around the basket and a deft shooting touch. He was the funnel through which the USSR offenses flowed, and in his case, myth was difficult to separate from reality.

He played several years as a professional in Spain, and by the time he reached the NBA with Portland in 1995, a decade after he was first drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, leg injuries, including an Achilles tear that didn't benefit from today's medicine, had turned him into a mortal. He was older, slower and less dominating, with just his court sense lingering as his last remaining superpower.

Growing up in Malaga in southern Spain, Domas and his three siblings, two older brothers and a younger sister, knew their father was a Hall of Fame basketball player -- he's 7-3, after all, and was routinely stopped in public -- but Arvydas' humility left unanswered questions that could be answered only by internet searches.

"I was aware of him as a player, but growing up I just looked at him as my dad," Domas says. "When I was 11 or 12, we started putting his name into YouTube, and that's how we realized what he actually meant to the basketball world instead of just being our dad."

Arvydas lives in his native Lithuania but visits his son at Christmas and attends games in Sacramento in a suite; he can be seen on the local telecasts leaning back in his chair, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. In that vein, he refuses all interview requests for fear of eclipsing some of his son's light.

There are similarities -- the passing ability, court vision, dexterity around the hoop. "We talk about my game, but we never compare," Domas says. "He really just let us do our thing. But I get the comparisons from family members and my mom. They see the mannerisms and say, 'Wow -- it's Dad.'"

THE SABONIS-KEEGAN Murray dynamic has become one of the most entertaining subplots of the Kings' renaissance. Sabonis -- his face red, his eyes bulging, his brow protruding -- wages a pitched battle to bring out the best in Murray, a conscientious, unemotional rookie from Iowa who says of himself, "I'd probably say I'm pretty aware of being a rookie. I'm trying not to mess anything up."

Sabonis wants Murray, the fourth overall pick, to be all the things that don't come naturally to him: assertive, expressive, outwardly self-confident. "He's a really, really good player," Sabonis says. "He's his own guy in his own way. He's just an awesome, great kid, does the right thing, doesn't complain. I kind of see myself in my rookie year: Do your job, don't talk much. In Oklahoma City I had Russ [Westbrook] helping me, getting me shots, getting me motivated. It made such an impression on me that I thought, 'If I could do that for somebody and give back someday, that would be great.' And now it's someone who has the potential to be even better than me."

The Kings are a fascinating psychological study. Brown's easy eloquence belies a demanding nature, and more than a few times this season he has called one of trademark early timeouts -- sometimes as early as after the first possession of the game or half -- to vehemently impart a life lesson to Murray. It means that Brown knows just how good Murray can be, and he also knows that Murray can take a little heat without wilting.

"Coaches are always going to be on me about little things," Murray says, "but Domas is a guy who's always going to have my back no matter what. Whenever I get a semi-clean look, he's telling me to shoot. Every day he tells me: shoot the ball. He instills the ultimate confidence in me, and when I mess up it's always like a brother encouraging me."

Sabonis-Murray has all the elements of a classic sitcom relationship. Murray was in an early-season shooting slump in November when the Kings had an off day in Miami. Sabonis invited him out to dinner along with a couple of teammates, to a sushi place. Murray's on-court emotional range is surpassed only by his epicurean adventurism; he eats chicken and rice three times a day on game days, and at least once on every other day. "I know I'm going to like it," he says with indisputable logic, "and I know it's going to fill me up." It is one of Sabonis' goals in life to expose Murray to new experiences. "He's always taking me to restaurants and trying to lighten the mood when I'm around," Murray says, "but I don't try new things, so he hasn't gotten me to try anything new." On the night in question, at the Miami sushi place, the decision was easy: "I'm not eating fish," Murray says. "Not cooked, and definitely not raw."

But he did talk, or at least Sabonis did. He talked about whatever came to mind, as long as it wasn't basketball. "It was a turning point for me," says Murray, who ended up averaging more than 12 points per game. "It was the first time I'd gone out to dinner with guys on the team, and it just instilled confidence that I belong."

In a game against Portland, Murray set the rookierecord for most 3-point field goals in a season. When the record-setting 188th went through the hoop, Murray started downcourt as he always does: rigidly, almost defiantly unexpressive. But as he crossed half court, he broke into the slimmest of smiles. It had nothing to do with the shot or the record. It was entirely a reaction to the exuberance displayed by Sabonis.

"He was way more excited than I was," Murray says. "When I hit it, he was just running down the court smiling at me until I finally had to smile."

His eyes always on high alert, Sabonis' encouragement can look a lot like pleading. Shoot the ball, he tells Murray, over and over, during games and at practice and probably when he's trying to get Murray to eat something he knows he will never eat.

"Keegan might not say two words, but we go out to dinner, he gets loose and then the next day he's talking s--- at practice," Sabonis says. "That's it right there; that's what I love."

Sabonis wore a microphone for the Game 3 national telecast, and most of the scenes the broadcast showed were Sabonis imploring Murray -- to smile, to have fun and, of course, to shoot the ball.

"He's always fiery," Murray says. "I don't know where he gets it from."

The answer can be found any number of places -- Spain, Lithuania, even Napa. If any of those fail, there's always YouTube. Or maybe the answer isn't geographic. This is Sabonis' fourth playoff series. He doesn't know what it's like to win one. He's got two games -- the two biggest games of his career -- to change that. He'd like to do it for everyone, and not just himself.

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