Two teams surprisingly in the Western Conference playoff chase when the calendar flipped to 2023 go head-to-head Tuesday night when the Sacramento Kings visit the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City.

The Kings improved upon their standing Friday when Kevin Huerter buried a go-ahead 3-pointer with 9.2 seconds left in an entertaining 126-125 home win over the Jazz in Sacramento.

The Kings haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006, but new coach Mike Brown noted afterward that his team’s hometown fans got a taste of what April could have in store if the team continues at its current pace.

“You can mistake some of these regular-season games for playoffs,” he observed, “just with the energy they bring.”

The meeting was the first of four this season — two at each site — with the final two coming in late March with the postseason on the visible horizon.

The pairing features a head-to-head matchup between two of the league’s most productive big men, the Kings’ Domantas Sabonis and Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen.

Despite playing with a fractured right thumb, the left-handed Sabonis shot 12-for-12 and finished with 28 points in the win over Utah. He followed that with 18 points and 14 rebounds in a 118-108 loss at Memphis on Sunday, his 13th straight double-double.

He had 12 double-doubles in 13 games in December, tying Nikola Jokic for the NBA lead last month.

While Sabonis ranks among the league’s top interior forces, Markkanen has done much of his damage from the perimeter.

He hit 16 of his 24 shots on a 36-point night against the Kings. Among his 16 hoops was a 3-pointer, giving him at least one in 26 straight games, a run that reached 27 when he bombed in three more in Saturday’s 126-123 home loss to the Miami Heat.

The 7-footer totaled 49 threes in December, which tied for the eighth most in the NBA despite the fact that he missed three games.

“He’s a matchup nightmare,” teammate Kelly Olynyk said. “He’s shooting the ball unbelievably.”

The earlier meeting was far from a one-on-one duel.

The Kings not only got the difference-making hoop from Huerter but also a team-high 30 points, while De’Aaron Fox gave Sacramento a third player with 20 or more points and a second with a double-double with 24 points and 10 assists.

Jordan Clarkson backed Markkanen with 25 points for Utah, which lost the game from beyond the 3-point arc, where it made just 8 of 32 while the hosts went 12-for-30.

The Kings enter the rematch in the better form of the two teams, having won two of three. With Utah having lost four in a row, Sacramento has moved two games ahead in the Western standings.

The clubs will head in opposite directions after the meeting. Utah will travel to Houston to begin a three-game road trip on Thursday, while Sacramento will fly west to tip off a five-game homestand Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks on the second night of a back-to-back.

–Field Level Media