SACRAMENTO -- Golden 1 Center might have been the safest place in America on Thursday evening. Between private security and Sac PD in full riot gear, the evening went off without a hitch. In addition, a pretty good game of basketball broke out.
With nothing to play for but pride and experience, the Sacramento Kings made the Indiana Pacers work a full 48 minutes for their 45th victory of the season. A loss is a loss, but once again, the Kings showed a glimpse into the what the future may hold.
"Guys are getting better and guys are developing and guys are better than they were a month ago and then better than they were in November," coach Dave Joerger said in his postgame presser. "So it's a fantastic opportunity for guys to play a lot of minutes."
This was a different Joerger than the one we saw Tuesday evening. He couldn't hide his displeasure with his team's effort against the Dallas Mavericks. Despite the scores of the two games being similar and the outcome being the same, some losses feel better and some feel worse.
Against Indiana, Sacramento wouldn't go away. The never trailed by double-digits and they entered the fourth quarter all squared at 79-79 after a Frank Mason 22-foot jumper at the buzzer.
This is what Joerger is living for down the stretch. You want close games. You want learning experiences for your young core.
The Kings fell behind by eight at the 3:02 mark of the fourth, but they never went away. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finished the night with a team-high 21 points, hit a floater to make it a six point game with 2:42 remaining.
Buddy Hield continued his stellar stretch, drilling a 3-pointer at the 1:06 mark to make it a 99-96 game. After a Pacers turnover, Hield hit a pair of free throws to give the Kings a 7-0 run and cut Indiana's lead to one with 30.1 remaining.
"I think all the young guys love those types of moments," Hield said following the loss. "Everybody wants to step up and make big plays and show support for each other and be that guy for the team. I feel like everybody's come through in those big moments."
If this season is about learning and growing, these are the opportunities the Kings need.
With 17.9 seconds remaining, Victor Oladipo knocked down a 26-foot 3-pointer to give Indy a four point lead. Instead of folding, Hield dropped in a 20-footer straddling the line to make it 100-102 with 13.2 remaining and give him his sixth 20-point performance in his last eight contests.
"As players, you live for those moments, you want to be in those moments where you can make plays for your teammates and try to put your team on your back," Hield added.
Sacramento was forced to foul and the Pacers Bojan Bogdanovic hit both free throws to once again make it a four-point game with 10.7 seconds left on the clock.
The Kings' Bogdanovic answered back with a 31-foot laser to make it a one point game with 4.3 seconds in regulation. Victor Oladipo made both free throws and the Kings missed a 67-foot heave as time expired to fall by a final of 106-103.
"It's always better to play in games like that, the intensity kind of picks up," De'Aaron Fox said. "They're fighting for a playoff spot, a higher seed. It's always great to get that kind of experience."
With the win, Indiana moved into a virtual tie with the 76ers for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase and they trail the Cleveland Cavaliers by just a half game for the third spot.
The loss was the third straight for Sacramento and drops them to 24-52 on the season. But in a season about growth and development, falling by three points to a high quality playoff team in the final seven games of the year shows that the team is still fighting and still looking to improve.