How Domantas Sabonis is playing with a fractured thumb and keeping the Kings afloat

How Domantas Sabonis is playing with a fractured thumb and keeping the Kings afloat

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Domantas Sabonis fractured his right thumb five days ago. Surgery is the cleanest way to fix it. But that procedure, discussed behind the scenes in the last 72 hours, is attached to a four-to-six-week absence, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation. That means Sabonis would miss somewhere around 20 games.

This has become clear to Sabonis. In response, he said that he cannot be absent that amount of time. That injury — an avulsion fracture in the thumb on his non-shooting hand — can be overcome while remaining functional, he’s been told.

Sabonis missed one game, Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets, while the medical staff worked to reduce the swelling. It settled down enough for him to return Wednesday in a rematch against Denver. He had 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, guarded Nikola Jokic for most of the night, and the Kings escaped with a 127-126 victory.

“It’s been a long summer,” Sabonis said. “A lot of expectations (the team). Everyone has done a lot of work. Missing out on a huge number of games just didn’t seem right. If I could play through it, that’s something I could at least try.”

That speaks to the desperation of the moment not only for the player, but also the franchise that traded Tyrese Haliburton to acquire him. Sabonis is 26 years old, in his prime and coming off an All-Star season. He is making just $18.5 million this season and $19.4 million next season, the final season of his below-market deal. This is a key time for him professionally and some of the immediate importance is tied to the success of the team, proving that he can be a key element of a winner.

The Kings are in an obsessive battle to end their much-vaunted 16-year playoff drought. So many of the personnel moves they’ve made, including the Sabonis trade, were part of a grander scheme to slay that dragon in April 2023.

Taken out of context, Sabonis’ 20-game losing streak during an 82-game marathon doesn’t seem all that seismic. But go back to the moment and look at the rankings. The Kings are 18-15, grabbing that sixth seed with their pinky finger in a crowded Western Conference. Here’s a snapshot of the current rankings:

1. Pelicans: 22-12
2. Nuggets: 22-12
3. Grizzlies: 20-13
4. Clippers: 21-15
5. Sun: 20-16
6. Kings: 18-15
7. Mavericks: 19-16
8. Blazers: 18-16
9. Jazz: 19-18
10. Warriors: 18-18
11. Timberwolves: 16-19
12. Thunder: 15-19

Zoom into the loss column. The Kings are three away from the top seed, but also just three over the 10th seed and four over the 12th. A few bad weeks can send you tumbling down the mountain. Sacramento has already been struggling, losing to the Hornets, Wizards and Nuggets during this home run, needing to turn the ship around quickly before the schedule stiffens.

That sounds like an impossible task without Sabonis. He is a transformational player for them. Forget just the counting numbers: 18.3 points, 12.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists. When he has been on the floor this season (1,079 minutes), the Kings have an elite 118.9 offensive rating and a plus-5.9 net rating. They have outscored opponents by a team-best 125 points.

What happens when he sits down? In 510 minutes, the Kings’ offensive rating sits at 104.9, worse than the league’s least efficient offense. They have a minus-5.0 net rating. They have passed with 72 points. They lose without their inner bruiser, which also serves as the center of their flowing offense. The backup options behind him — Alex Len, Richaun Holmes, Chimezie Metu, Neemias Queta — can’t even come close to doubling his skill set.

So it feels safe to assume that the difference with and without Sabonis over a 20-game stretch would be huge. Maybe you are talking about 12-8 as opposed to 6-14. Considering the state of the crowded conference, a six-win gap in the middle of the season could easily turn out to be the difference in ending the drought or being hungrier than ever.

“I don’t like sitting on the bench,” Sabonis said. “Especially with street clothes. It was not in my mind. I told everyone I’m still playing.”

The Kings are lucky he has that kind of mindset. Sabonis was excellent against the Nuggets on Wednesday. He made 12 of 18 shots and both of his 3-pointers, keeping Sacramento within reach as his teammates battled back before playing a key role in the furious fourth-quarter comeback. If he is not there, it is most likely a loss, as he was the night before when he rested.

“He literally has a broken thumb,” teammate De’Aaron Fox said. “Going out there and playing with that kind of pain against (Jokic) … he goes out there. He fights. He still jumps knowing that hand will be caught there, hit, hit. He went out there and it shows his toughness. He wants to win.

“When he came here, it wasn’t just about the future. He wanted to come here and win games now.”

This is an injury that won’t heal well without surgery, and because of Sabonis’ desire to play, will be constantly at risk over the next few months. It’s something Sabonis said he’ll have to “manage” on a daily basis. He wore a padded wrap on Wednesday.

So the question is whether this affects his performance. Against the Nuggets, the earliest noticeable deviation came in his post defense. While guarding Jokiq early in the game, he tried to stay out of trouble and absorb body shots to the chest.

“My chest is sore right now because I couldn’t use my hand as much,” Sabonis admitted to reporters after the game after a more than hour-long treatment session that included a cold tub.

Hiding is too strong a term, but here’s a post-up from the first quarter where Sabonis appears to be keeping his hand wrapped so he doesn’t take the brunt of a hit.

But everything else mostly seemed manageable. His right thumb is part of his guide hand on jumpers, and Sabonis had one of his best nights of the season away from the box, making two 3s, a couple of mid-rangers and 5 of 8 free throws.

“Try not to think about it,” Sabonis said. “I passed my warm-up. The medical staff did an excellent job. People kept asking me (about the thumb). I’m like, ‘Don’t ask me.’ “

More importantly, he looked willing to use that hand to grab rebounds, reach through traffic and even hit loose balls. Here he is early in the third quarter, stabbing Jokic’s pass and deflecting it with his right hand. During the sequence, he also grabbed a long jumper and pushed forward Harrison Barnes with both hands.

But it was a possession in the last minute which is a good sign for the Kings. With Sacramento up by two, Sabonis is guarding Jokić. Sabonis is slightly out of position after a quick pick-and-roll action, and Jokić has a step on a drive to his left. As he strode through, Sabonis didn’t give up on the game. He uses his stuffed right hand and broken thumb to hit Jokic’s right arm, preventing layups and forcing free throws.

Despite the pain it might cause in his thumb, it was an instinctive play from the physical Sabonis that he didn’t hesitate to make.

When he initially injured his thumb, went out against the Wizards and spent the next several days receiving treatment options, there was cause for concern not only about his short-term health, but also about the Kings’ long-term ability to maintain a playoff position. Sabonis’ game against the Nuggets should ease some of that build-up anxiety.

(Main photo of Sabonis: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

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