SACRAMENTO – It isn’t how you start a game, it’s how you finish it.
That has been the theme for Mike Brown and the Kings this season and it continued Tuesday night as they fought back from a 24-point deficit and defeated the Golden State Warriors in yet another thrilling Northern California showdown.
The way they finished it? A Malik Monk game-winner that had fans at Golden 1 Center on their feet exhilarated to finally celebrate a victory they had desperately longed for against the Warriors.
Seventeen games into the season, Brown is continuing to play with various rotations and experiment with different lineups. With new guys like Sasha Vezenkov and Chris Duarte who have seen their minutes fluctuate, or players like Davion Mitchell who has fallen out of the rotation with the surge of two-way guard Keon Ellis — Brown has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up at any given time.
For Monk, though, his role is very clear and pretty set in stone.
The 25-year-old guard largely is regarded as the guy who steps up and provides rejuvenated energy off the bench for the Kings. Dating back to last season, his first in Sacramento, Monk would do more than just give the starters a breather. He contributed.
When the Kings needed him to just maintain a lead, he helped add to it. When things weren’t going right for the Kings and they needed a spark, he was that guy.
He doesn’t consistently drop 20, but he consistently understands the assignment and delivers it with unmatched swagger and confidence.
Still, it’s never enough to notch a spot in the starting rotation. Even with his Kentucky-turned-Kings teammate De’Aaron Fox missing time early this season due to injury, Brown turned to Mitchell and Ellis to fill Fox’s void in the starting lineup over Monk. The coach’s reasoning was because of how well it works for the Kings when Monk comes off the bench and leads the second unit.
Brown previously has referred to it as a “unique” role that only a player like Monk can fulfill, and Monk certainly lives up to that role with great pride.
“I love playing basketball,” Monk said after Tuesday’s NBA In-Season Tournament win. “I take pride in going out there knowing that it might be my last time playing. So I can’t take anything for granted. That’s all I do. I put heart into it and go out there and give it my all.”
On Tuesday, Monk entered the game for Fox at the 5:48 mark in the first quarter. He contributed seven points and a rebound off the bench in the opening quarter. He was subbed out early in the second quarter and didn’t return to the court until there was 5:40 remaining in the third.
Brown later said he pulled Monk and sat him for so long because he wasn’t impressed with his effort defensively, and thought he let Warriors guard Klay Thompson get too many easy buckets on him.
But when the Kings needed a jolt inside a snoozing Golden 1 Center, Brown turned back to the guy he could rely on to do just that.
Monk returned to the game in the third quarter and seventeen seconds after checking in, nailed a 28-foot 3-pointer. Roughly four minutes later, he sank another trey that brought the Kings within 11 and forced the Warriors to call a timeout.
The timing was huge for the Kings, who built off the momentum and went on an 11-4 run to close the third quarter. It then came down to the fourth quarter – the final 12 minutes of the game.
In a quarter that typically is taken over by Fox as the reigning NBA Clutch Player of the Year, it was Monk’s turn to play hero. In the final quarter alone, Monk had eight points, one rebound, one block, one assist and one steal.
And just like he delivers when the Kings need a spark, Monk delivered when they needed a bucket. With 19 seconds left and the Kings down by one, Fox dished it out to Kevin Huerter who found Monk in the corner.
Heavily contested by Andrew Wiggins, Monk dribbled right to the baseline and then crossed over to the left and into the paint before putting up an off-balanced jump shot that banked right in and eventually was the game-winner after Steph Curry’s deep triple tipped off the front of the iron and fell short.
What started off as an embarrassment on national television for Sacramento quickly became a friendly reminder to fans watching across the country that the Kings belong and can compete amongst the best.
But it was also a reminder that Brown was right about Monk’s role with this team.
“I’m a firm believer in it’s not about who starts the game, it’s who finishes the game,” Brown said postgame. “And Malik gives us huge punch off the bench and he gives us as a staff a lot of versatility. We can play a lot of different lineups with him coming off the bench. And at the end of the day, if we want to end the game with him on the floor, we can. I said last year, Sixth Man of the Year was a no-brainer, it should’ve gone to Malik.
“Obviously he’s, in my opinion, the leading candidate for it again this year. And hopefully people will recognize how valuable he is for us coming off the bench.”
Fox’s playing days with Monk date back to their time together at Kentucky, but nothing has changed since the two reunited in the 916.
When Monk gets going, that energy and spark he brings on the court is contagious to his teammates.
“He’s big for us,” Fox said. “We’ve seen what he can do in the pick and roll, play-making with [Domantas Sabonis] or JaVale [McGee] or whoever it may be, and him getting downhill just creates so much for us. And when he’s doing well defensively, getting blocks, just being able to start our transition offense, I think it’s hard to beat us when he’s playing at a high level like he was tonight.”
Monk might not be a starter, but his Sixth Man spot surely is locked in with the Kings. He didn’t start Tuesday’s game. He was benched for nearly an entire quarter. Yet he helped lead a comeback and sent the Warriors home and out of In-Season Tournament play with an epic game-winning shot. It truly was symbolic of Monk being at the right spot at the right time.
And on Tuesday night, it was proof that he was exactly where he needed to be.