When you're the Sacramento Kings, you don't go nitpicking wins. They don't come around often enough. But I have to say, for all the good feels of beating the Blazers on the road in their season-opener on Wednesday, the fact that Luke Walton allowed Damian Lillard to get up a potential game-tying 3-pointer, rather that instructing his players to foul, as the final seconds ticked off was inexcusable.
It never should've been that close. The Kings led by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter. They led by five with 19 seconds to play. Only the Kings can nearly be derailed by their point guard's shoe:
Still, by the grace of the most sympathetic basketball gods, after a pair of Harrison Barnes free throws, the Kings managed to emerge from their meltdown with a three-point lead and 8.8 seconds to play.
To avoid any more drama, all they had to do was foul. Force Portland to shoot two free throws. It's a stupid loophole that teams can do this when up three; fouling is supposed to hurt the offending team (this is another topic for another day). But as long as the rules allow obviously intentional fouls that suck all the drama out of these situations, you might as well take advantage.
Especially when it's Damian Lillard -- who we know has multiple game-tying/winning 3-pointers on his resume as probably the most clutch shooter to ever walk the earth -- on the other side. What coach in their right mind would let Lillard attempt a game-tying shot?
Luke Walton, that's who.
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And we're not talking about a bang-bang sequence in which you could understand Walton, or any coach, being cautious against the mistake of fouling Lillard as he goes into the act of shooting right off the catch. Lillard took the inbounds pass about 90 feet from the basket and sauntered up the court with Moe Harkless just shadowing him. Harkless had all the time in the world to foul. Walton had all the time in the world to tell his team what to do during the free throws. Instead, watch as Lillard just walks right into the patented step-back that he has drilled over and over throughout his career.
Are you kidding me? You're the Sacramento Kings. You have a preciously rare road win against a high-quality team in the palm of your hand, and you're going to just usher Lillard up the court, with plenty of cushion, and basically gift wrap him the chance to upend all the work you did with a single shot that he makes in his sleep? That is losing basketball. Losing coaching. Plain and simple. Heck, Walton was even quoted after the game saying that Lillard is going to make that shot "most nights."
“Not very pleased at all with how we played defensively, the details of our defense, in the second half. And I get it, that’s a tough team to guard, but we have to be better. Damian Lillard had a chance to tie the game up and most nights he’s going to hit that.” -- Luke Walton— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 21, 2021
You can't make this stuff up. Walton knew Lillard, even if he was 0-for-8 from 3 at that point, was a good bet to make that shot, and he still let him shoot it. He was literally asking to risk losing that game in overtime for his team. He's lucky he didn't. But luck doesn't last long. If the Kings are going to push for a spot in the play-in round this season, let alone a playoff spot, they don't have any room for error like this. They got away with it this time. But man did they play with fire.