Sacramento, March 1 (US time) –
Sport can be a cruel beast.
There was a real spring in the step of Sacramento residents on Friday morning when I stood in line at Starbucks waiting to order what would be a tasteless coffee.
A man and a woman were standing in front of me discussing that night’s game against the Clippers and how a win could propel the Kings into playoffs contention.
Don’t discount how hard that must be for a Sacramento fan to have genuine hope.
This is a city that has never seen an NBA championship and only once made it to the conference finals.
Sacramento has the longest NBA playoffs drought in the NBA at 13 years. The nearest to that number is Phoenix at nine.
But times are changing in the Californian capital.
A young and talented side headlined by De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield will sure to feature in the post-season sooner rather than later.
That trio, complemented by Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein and veteran Harrison Barnes, has enough aura to suggest something special is around the corner.
But it wasn’t to be on Friday night.
Against their Pacific rivals, in a game dubbed by the Sacramento Bee as the biggest match of the season, the Kings were dealt a valuable lesson.
Beaten by seven points in somewhat controversial fashion – an offensive foul that could have easily been called the other way – the air was quickly deflated from the loud and proud Sacramento stadium.
And that’s what Kings fans are. Proud.
In fact, their slogan was posted all around the Golden 1 Center on Friday night – One. Proud. City.
Yet the fans walked out of the stadium knowing that good teams win those must-win games.
The Kings failed to get the job done.
But it’s the great teams that soak up the disappointment, learn and become stronger.
And there’s a sense this Sacramento side has potential to be great.
Mathematically there’s still hope for season 2018-19 as the Kings are still well in contention to finish in the Western Conference’s top eight, but the disappointment of missing out may just add that little bit of fuel to the fire that’s needed for 19-20 and beyond.
But try telling that to the Sacramento fans.
Thirteen years they have been waiting for a chance to cheer their team in the playoffs.
A win against the Clippers would have been a win for the ages.
Now the test is to put it behind them and to notch some Ws against some Eastern Conference opposition.
The Kings stay at home in the short term with games against the Knicks on Monday night (local time) and then against Boston on Wednesday.
They take on a Celtics side that will be backing up after a likely gruelling clash against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.
From there, it’s non-stop road games for Sacramento, with another clash against the Knicks, this time at Madison Square Garden, before matches against Washington, Boston and Philadelphia before returning home to play Chicago on March 18.
Right now, the ninth-placed Kings are three wins behind San Antonio in the conference standings with a game in hand.
But based on the Spurs’ recent poor performances, a good showing against the Knicks and Celtics could revitalise Sacramento’s season and breathe life back into the Western Conference’s run home.
And who could forget the side nipping at their heels. None other than LeBron James’ Lakers. Just one win behind the Kings, only a fool would write off a LeBron-led side with 20 matches still to play.
There’s still a little bit of hope if you’re queueing for coffee in Sacramento.