Little Things Can Go a Long Way For the Kings

“For us, we gotta make sure we’re eliminating some of the mistakes, but I think the effort was there,” interim head coach Alvin Gentry said of his team’s loss to the Chicago Bulls in the final game before the all-star break while also noting how the masterful performance of DeMar DeRozan was just too much to overcome in that game.

Gentry was right, the Kings played well in that game, but not well enough to win. The Kings fell just short in the fourth quarter despite the game being mostly neck and neck, primarily due to their defensive shortcomings and turnovers, which ultimately granted Chicago ten more field goal attempts than the Kings in the fourth quarter. And like that, the Kings lost by seven.

Since the big trade in February, Sacramento has displayed a trend of making the same small mistakes that have lead to several losses. Even as they look and are undeniably better, the Kings continue to commit enough of these wrongs that puts them on the losing end. And these wrongs at times feel so obvious and fixable.

With a new team developing connections on the fly as a play-in race continues to steepen for them, this may actually be a source of optimism for the Kings, and not the same old hard-to-come-by spoonful of good feelings that have left fans disappointed before. 

Reason being is that as the clock is ticking on Sacramento’s season, the remedies and needed improvements going forward have never been clearer.

With the minor issues plaguing the Kings and causing them to lose out in contests where they competed pretty well, it is reasonable to say that minor adjustments can go a long way. And if there are several of those adjustments being made, it begins the process of establishing an identity here that can help unroll seamless continuity of success next season.

After two losses to Denver immediately after the break in which the Kings fell short due to their usual imperfections (in game one it was another second half collapse marred by Denver’s 21-9 run, and in the second game a drought of scoring in the fourth quarter, including the team’s 0-7 production from three, caused the Kings to lose by five), there was an opportunity and frankly a need for an adjustment.

That adjustment: a change in the starting lineup.

Maurice Harkless is a solid veteran player, but it was clear that in a lineup of Fox, Holiday, Barnes, and Sabonis, he was the perfect example of an offensive hole. Not too long ago, Harkless had a 100% shooting night and was putting together a few good games, but his shot is just not enough of a factor to open things up for the inside game of Sabonis and Fox. At one point Sabonis even looked him off as he was wide open from deep in the second game against the Nuggets. And as solid of a defender as he can be, the team’s defensive cohesion wasn’t any better when he was on the floor and thus that upside was not enough to justify his starting role, or as it appears, even a role in the rotation.

And so Trey Lyles was put into the starting lineup, and he did not disappoint, scoring 24 points in a Kings win over Oklahoma CIty.

The immediate difference at power forward was not just about scoring, it was about presence. Lyles was playing with confidence and awareness, utilizing his sense of timing and patience to help the team find the best look— and often times that meant he had to get that look himself. 

With the increased passing and offensive talent at the other four positions, Lyles had opportunities, using his experience and aggressiveness to score off of good pump fakes. And though it ended up being his only one of the game, an early three helped keep the opposing team honest, allowing for better cuts or for Fox to get to the rim.

The next performance against New Orleans was less emphatic at the end of the day, and it showed that such a move in the starting lineup was not an overnight solution to becoming a playoff team because it also showed that there are other small improvements to attend to.

Another problem for the Kings in this recent stretch of games over the last month is the proclivity for them to put together a couple of bad possessions that allow the opposing team to go on these lopsided runs in games.

In the first matchup against Denver, that third quarter saw a Nuggets 12-0 run, and then the fourth quarter bore witness to a 21-9 run. The Kings were only down five at halftime in that game before they ended up putting together plenty of empty possessions and fell behind.

Similarly, in New Orleans, Sacramento was playing well against the Pelicans, down by four at half time and containing C.J. McCollum. In that second half, however, the Pelicans offense began to soar, lead of course by Brandon Ingram’s 33-point performance. 

When McCollum and Valanciunas added some supplemental scoring in that second half along with Ingram’s steady play, the Kings offense began to miss shots. The things that had kept them in the game—good ball movement, valuing possessions, and finding the better shot—were abandoned for a lot of desperate takes, including attempts early in the shot clock. The shooting was bad in the second half, but the looks were worse as the team only amassed seven assists in the half, and thus the Kings spiraled out of the game.

After the loss to New Orleans, Gentry commented on the second half downward spiral.

“There was just a lot of things, but the one thing that we talked about is that you can’t make up points when you’re behind if you’re trading baskets, he said to the media. “The only way you can get back into the game is that you gotta be able to come up with stops and then run out and try to score, get in the open court, and we just didn’t do that.”

While the failure to get stops on defense contributed heavily to their loss, the offense—and its correlation to performance on the other end—was the main problem. The bad possessions, the straying away from an effective offensive game plan only allows the opponent to create a bigger gap in the score. As Gentry mentioned recently, better offensive possessions create better defense. 

“If we manage our turnovers, that automatically makes our defense better,” Sacramento’s interim head coach said last week.

Beyond just turnovers that show up in the stat sheet, it was clear that Gentry meant all other manners of failing to value a possession. That is, shooting early in the shot clock, not making the extra pass, and not finding alternatives when jump shots aren’t working, such as fighting to get to the free throw line. 

In simple terms, it’s almost like Gentry wants the Kings to keep it simple.

The game against San Antonio, the second of a road back to back that featured a prolonged travel delay that didn’t get the team into town until Thursday afternoon, was a good opportunity to keep things simple. And the Kings sure did, holding off the Spurs in a well-fought game by doing “the little things,” as Barnes put it.

Sacramento put together an excellent first half, keeping the activity and movement up on the offense, and playing attentive defense. The Kings went into halftime with a 13-point lead with 16 assists and just 4 turnovers. They were indeed keeping it simple, and it was paying off. 

But then, midway through the third quarter, after being up by 19 at one point, the Kings allowed the Spurs to go on a 15-7 run to close out the quarter. The run flowed from poor offensive possessions for Sacramento after San Antonio pivoted its focus to the interior. These included a poor pass attempt from Mitchell, offensive stagnancy, and Fox driving into three or four black jerseys.  

Barnes eventually hit a three that triggered a Popovich timeout, but forced shots from deep and a stint of sloppy play followed as visions of a Sacramento collapse began to emerge.

Instead of panicking, Sacramento stuck to keeping it simple—taking what the defense gives them. So the fourth quarter started with their best shooters to create space again, which worked, but it wasn’t long before the tired Kings would revert to some bad tendencies. A turnover, a blocked layup, and a missed basket looked like the beginning of a troubling chain as the Spurs took the lead.

With the score practically even going into the final minutes, the Kings started doing the little things again, valuing each possession, and getting to the line a lot (a total of 16 times in the quarter).

The Kings ended up winning, not only because they played good defense, but because they never let their offense spiral into drys spells for too long. That was why they secured the win.

One of the bitter sweet things about this Kings team as it is today is that there is a feeling of hope in what’s here—that things could be ironed out, that chemistry can bind to form a good product, and that wins can follow—but that there is so little time to see any of that through.

In a crowded conference where this team is definitely a considerable piece or two short of being a playoff competitor, there is still plenty to look forward to knowing that momentum is being gathered in the tail end of this season. 

With a few added pieces next season, Kings fans could very well look at this final stretch of games and see how valuable it was in establishing a winning direction. It seems that game after game, there is a little progress made, and keeping that up can go a long way.

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