Over the last several games, Davion Mitchell has been a stand out player for a team missing its two best players. In the previous five games, the rookie is averaging 24 points on 48.5% from the field and 38.5% from deep, 8.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1 steal.
Probably more noticeable than any statistic, though, is the manner in which Mitchell’s effort and energy has added a charge to this Sacramento defense. Of course, that can’t be mentioned without also bringing up Donte DiVincenzo, who along with Mitchell has served as the nexus behind this defensive shift.
In his own right, DiVincenzo has averaged 12 points, a percentage of 42.4 from deep, 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.8 steals in his last five games, supplying the team with no shortage of leadership, clutch ability, and, of course, his ever-kinetic effort as of late.
The blossoming Mitchell-DiVincenzo pairing is doing wonders for the team defense altogether, coalescing with the effort and decision making of guys like Harrison Barnes, Trey Lyles, Damian Jones, and others in these final games. More than anything, it’s actually leading to Sacramento landing on the winning sides of games.
Out of three of the last four games, the Kings have secured victories precisely because their defense has worked well enough to secure stops and therefore open up better opportunities on the offensive end.
When asked about the defensive potential of this team following the game against Miami, DiVincenzo said there’s “a lot of potential.” Interestingly enough, the observation came after the one Kings loss in the last four games, a contest that was not entirely close at any point. Yet DiVincenzo went on to describe the very formula this team is trying to implement, and the formula primarily developing through the energetic combination of the former Buck and Mitchell.
“Once the game [in Miami] got away from us, I told [Davion Mitchell], I said, ‘just still compete, let’s show some heart,’ and we kind of feed off each other on the defensive end… that was kind of our mindset even though the game got away from us, to still build habits, build off that energy and take that into the next game because the next two games [against Houston] are winnable.”
It’s that heart and competitiveness that drives the defensive improvement of this team. As Tristan Thompson expressed earlier this year with the team, “this league is f—king hard,” and in order to build a “defensive mentality,” guys have to know that teammate’s have their back. Thompson illustrated exactly how important trust, effort, and activity are for any defense that expects to be good, and this formidable pairing is bringing that to life.
The difference between November 2021 and now feels like ages—the Kings are a team that seems focused on becoming a defensive team and confident in that endeavor. And it’s come to fruition gradually since the February trades that shook up this roster.
Prior to the arrival of Sabonis, the Kings ranked dead last in points in the paint allowed at 52.4 a game. In the seven weeks since the trade, the Kings are allowing an average of 49.7 points in the paint, good for 17th overall in that time frame. Sabonis’ effect regarding interior defense is clear in that between the trade with Indiana and the big man’s last appearance against Phoenix, the Kings were averaging just 48.9 paint points allowed, which was 15th in the league in that time.
The immediate difference, however, was not an immediate answer to the extreme defensive woes that have faced the Kings over the last two-plus seasons, though it was the start of the incremental improvement fans have witnessed.
The defense also began to improve with the rejuvenated mindset of De’Aaron Fox who’s leadership and change in focus on that end of the floor led to another surge in overall defensive play from the Kings.
Around the time Fox hurt his hand and played what could be his last basketball for the season, the Kings defense was clearly improved, but nevertheless still needed to dial it in when it came to the final sequences of the game.
Almost two weeks ago, the Kings took the NBA-best Phoenix Suns down to the wire, forcing the game into overtime before falling just short in the end. It was the most quintessential showing of the new look Sacramento team in this final season stretch: playing well practically all the way through, keeping things close with effort, playing better defense, but ultimately losing the game in the final few possessions.
It was obviously a “good effort” as Coach Gentry noted following that loss, but it was one the team wanted to nail down, and one that frankly could have been won.
“I thought we competed hard, played hard, did a good job,” the interim coach said following the game. “We just got to make a couple of plays down the stretch and we got to defend a couple of their plays down the stretch. We had a miscommunication on the three-pointer by Shamet, but you know I thought for the most part we did a good job of of defending.”
Despite playing well overall, the Kings lost the game in the final few possessions, namely on the back of a few failed defensive stances. As one can probably imagine, Gentry agreed that this was a stage of “learning” how to win games.
That stage, though, may be progressing faster than one might imagine.
In the following game against the Pacers, the Kings played another close game, but this time they saw it through to the end, winning on the road without Fox and Sabonis.
The Kings had come out looking sluggish to start the second half of that game, but the collective energy initiated mainly by Mitchell and DiVincenzo was wound up again as they held Indiana to just 20 points in the final quarter. While the defense was not as much of an x-factor in that win—not nearly as much as Buddy Hield’s own limitations, that is—just witnessing a victory in the final few possessions was a major milestone for the team, and it proved to begin paying off as the Kings traveled to Orlando.
Down there, the Kings brought together a nice closing performance in regulation against the Magic, lead by none other than Davion Mitchell, who stole the ball with seconds left in the fourth quarter, scored, and ultimately sent the game to overtime.
In overtime against Orlando, the Kings continued playing energetic defense, not just from the usual duo, but from the rest of the team that feeds off of them. Damian Jones, for instance, matched up against Franz Wagner, applying excellent defense to the talented wing player on multiple occasions. And Trey Lyles was active in securing possessions and stops, snagging 18 rebounds himself.
In the end, the Kings hit some big shots, the Magic didn’t, and the result was a win on the road.
After a shorthanded outing in South Florida that resulted in a fairly forgettable loss to the Heat, the Kings stopped into Houston for the first of two games there. Against the Rockets, the Kings would continue to improve in their late possession heroics, highlighting the two-man foundation that is working at the center of these late game displays of discipline.
Sacramento was up one against Houston going into the fourth quarter, and what followed was a quarter of astoundingly good defensive moments—moments that arose on the back of the continual improvement in the final stretch of the game.
The Kings held Houston to just 15 points in the fourth with the help from all sorts of places. Josh Jackson registered a steal, Jones continued using his mobility to protect the paint, Lyles remained hyperactive on the glass, but most of all it came down to Mitchell and DiVincenzo in the final five minutes.
In the final stretch, DiVincenzo drew an offensive foul and recorded a block soon after Mitchell’s steal. Even better, after a Damian Jones turnover looked to threaten Sacramento’s two-point lead, Davion Mitchell was able to get back in transition and force an offensive foul.
Continuing to feed off one another, DiVincenzo forced a Houston turnover while defending an inbound pass. And then Mitchell sealed the three-point lead to win after defending Kevin Porter Jr.—who had a triple-double—well enough to ward off a three-point attempt from the young Rockets talent and ice the game.
It was just three games out of the last four, but the Kings have made strides in dialing things in and locking down defensively in the final moments of the game.
Yes, the three games that displayed this positive shift came against three pretty poor teams, but the best way to refine effort and energy, regardless where it is exerted on the floor, is to see it pay off because the continuity this sprightly new duo is establishing can solidify the team trust Tristan Thompson alluded to months ago.
If Sacramento can continue improving in their performance at the end of games, particularly on defense, and ride the wave of energy created primarily by the relentless force of the Mitchell-DiVincenzo pairing, then next season could very well bring on a confident Kings defense that ranks near the top of the league.