The come down is not always kind.
After all the excitement brewing up to opening night, reality was certainly not friendly to the Sacramento Kings as they fell 108-115 to the visiting Portland Trail Blazers.
As much as some will point to officiating as the reason, it did not help that the Blazers dominated inside (56 points in the paint), looking miles more physical, and nor did it help that the Kings killed their chances in the final two-plus minutes of play.
“I’m excited to go watch the film — as crazy as it sounds — because I did not recognize the team that was out there most of the night,” Mike Brown admitted postgame. “I thought our guys tried to compete, but they didn’t compete the right way and we lost the game because of it.”
The loss came in spite of an excellent game from De’Aaron Fox, who scored 33 points, including shooting 5 of 9 from three, dished out 7 assists, grabbed 7 boards, and gobbled up 2 steals. Kevin Huerter scored 23 on 6 of 9 from deep, and Terence Davis came off the bench to score 14 and grab 5 rebounds.
From the outset, the energy was high, but the Kings got off to a rough start in the first quarter, amassing early fouls (9 team fouls that period), committing 4 turnovers to Portland’s 1, and finding themselves down 23-32.
Sacramento’s ball and player movement seemed stale and the three-point shots going up were not coming from optimal motion. Meanwhile, Portland was getting points on the inside—12 to be exact in the first—and it would continue throughout the night for the team anchored by the 6’11”, 290 lb Jusuf Nurkic (who, at times, was a challenge for Domantas Sabonis).
Despite two early turnovers, the second period featured the best quarter of the game for the Kings. They began playing defense (mostly due to Fox’s engagement as well as Davion Mitchell and Richaun Holmes off the bench), holding the Trail Blazers to just 19 points (10 of which came on the inside).
Moreover, though, the Kings were attacking the inside and getting great looks as a result. Plus, they saw nice production from their small lineup of Mitchell-Fox-Davis-Huerter-Sabonis in that quarter. The lineup helped get the team on a 16-1 run which ultimately sent them into halftime with a 55-51 lead.
In the third quarter, the Kings got away from defense and surrendered 5 offensive rebounds. They lost that period 29-33, making it even going into the fourth.
And in that final quarter things felt like they were rolling for Sacramento as they were up 104-99 with 4:51 to play, but Anfernee Simons threw down a dunk and, worse, sunk a three to tie it up on a defensive break down.
Sac couldn’t respond, but about two minutes later, with the game still tied, Terence Davis ascended for a put back dunk that was absolutely electrifying. However, it was met with a technical foul for taunting and Damian Lillard hit the free throw attempt.
Then the house fell down. Portland and Sacramento exchanged turnovers, Lillard missed a three, and then Fox was called for a charge on a slightly erratic drive. Then the Blazers got a three-point play opportunity for Jerami Grant, who took Barnes to the cup, and it was followed by a second three-point play for Josh Hart.
Suddenly, the Kings were down 111-106 with little time remaining before succumbing to the disappointing loss.
Well, it’s not the preseason anymore
Two things made it obvious this was the regular season.
For one, Portland was more physical than the Kings and anyone the Kings played in the last couple games, presenting a challenge. That—along with some nerves—played a huge factor in why Portland was able to keep Sac from hitting the ground running while also creating a tough night for Sabonis.
And as noted, the Blazers were having their fill on the inside, scoring 56 points in the paint and breaking a fundamental rule of Mike Brown’s defense.
The second indicator is this was the first opportunity for true situational basketball as it is late in a game, and the Kings essentially dropped the ball.
As many have pointed out, the loss felt way too familiar for a team that—going into the season—was rightfully flaunting how different it was. The team is still better than years past (by far), but that does not secure victories on its own.
The poor showings on the defensive end late in the game (the Grant three-point play, for example, where he took advantage of Harrison Barnes) combined with late turnovers and some questionable shot selections resulted in a major disappointment.
But it’s game 1.
“I think we can build off of this because the way we played — I think — is correctable,” Brown said after the game.
The Kings did not protect the middle or defend without fouling
Mike Brown doesn’t even need to say anything for it to be clear that his team needs some work on defense.
Yes, Portland scored 56 inside, but for visual purposes, look at the shot chart. The Kings did not do a good job of defending the middle of the floor as a whole. While there were some nice moments of help defense, the physicality of the Blazers exploited the paint and the Kings were never able to adjust.
Mike Brown wants to defend the middle of the floor and use the sidelines as extra defenders, but the opposition had their way.
Similarly, the Kings failed to follow through on something that’s evidently been a problem since the start of the preseason: defending without fouling.
KZ Okpala committed 3 early fouls, Domas eventually fouled out, and the Kings finished with 25 team fouls compared to the Trail Blazers’ 17.
Again the rotations seem like they’re coming around—and one can’t lose sight of the fact Fox was exceptional on that end—but the Kings need to prove their defensive bona fides.
How far does Brown’s trust extend?
As mentioned, Okpala made some early mistakes in his three first quarter fouls. He also missed his one attempt from three and hesitated on the next apparent opportunity.
He played better in the second half, but really because he wasn’t making the silly mistakes.
Okpala can still be a defensive force, but with Murray coming back, how far does Mike Brown’s trust in his guy go?
It’s only been one game, so we might not know for a bit.
A lineup of death?
The lineup in the second quarter of Mitchell-Fox-Davis-Huerter-Sabonis was insanely effective, and the closing lineup was Fox-Davis-Huerter-Barnes-Sabonis.
There was plenty of reason to believe that three-guard lineups would be frequently featured for this fast paced team that can shoot and that features some excellent depth at guard. It looked good in the preseason and it looked good tonight.
So, yes, the Kings do have a lineup of death, but it’s kind of in the works.
Really, it might be situational. The closing lineup could have featured a number of guys at the two. It was Davis because he was the hot hand—and the execution and aggressive nature he played with should keep him in play for those critical minutes—but it could easily be Mitchell or Monk depending on the situation and who’s playing well.
There are options, and those smaller lineups could continue to do wonders during stretches or near the close of a game, especially if it increases the speed and shooting talent on the floor.
Effort was good
As Brown said, he thought his guys “tried to compete.” Ultimately they did not execute, which is a big thing for the “conceptual basketball” Brown wants to utilize.
There’s an old wisdom in sports writing that a loss is never a good thing. It’s simply true. However, with the sour ending to opening night, take solace in the fact these guys competed.
Here’s two excellent examples, and they’re nearly identical.
In the first quarter, Fox lost the ball, but hustled back for a block (though, it was called a foul and stood as such because Mike Brown used his challenge a little earlier to no avail).
In the second quarter, Malik Monk did essentially the same thing, hauling his tail up the floor to send a block off the backboard.
From Fox to Mitchell to TD, everyone looked sprightly, and hopefully they’ll be ready to do more of that this weekend.
Davion Mitchell’s shoulder
Davion Mitchell appeared to have a little left shoulder discomfort after a collision in the second quarter with Josh Hart.
Mitchell did not exit the game because of it and played the rest of the night, but one could see him rotate his arm as if the shoulder wasn’t feeling great.
Though it might not be related, he also shot 0 of 5 from three.
It could be nothing, but keep an eye on that shoulder.
With game 1 under their belt and a tough loss, the Kings are forced to pivot towards a weekend back-to-back—the first of 15 this season—where they’ll host Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers on Saturday night before hitting Highway 80 for a game in San Francisco against the champion Warriors, where Mike Brown will receive his ring.
The surreal joy and sting of an opening night loss on your home floor is quite the roller coaster, but it’s business time as the Kings have to play a tough back-to-back against two of the best teams in the Western Conference this weekend.
Luckily for them, they’ll be getting their rookie Keegan Murray back just in time.