Looking Ahead at this Weekend’s Back-to-Back for the Kings

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 24: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings faces off against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors on October 24, 2021 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

After an opening night loss on the home floor, things don’t get much easier for the Sacramento Kings. In their next four games, they play the Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies, and Heat. 

Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact they play LA and Golden State for their first back-to-back of the season.

The loaded Clippers will visit the Golden 1 Center on Saturday night. Kawhi Leonard made his return last night after missing all of last season recovering from his ACL—though don’t be shocked to see him coming off the bench—while John Wall has also made his return to an NBA floor after sitting out last year. 

Mike Brown’s group will then hit the road for the Bay Area where they’ll take on the Warriors for a Sunday evening showdown. There, Brown, as well as other members of the Kings coaching staff, will receive their 2021-22 championship rings. Once the mini reunion is complete, the team will have a tough task with a Golden State team that looks like they got better with JaMychal Green and old friend Donte DiVincenzo coming in to replace Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II.

The road ahead is a challenge for the Kings, but they have the potential to handle it. They’ll need to demonstrate they have what it takes first.

Here are six things to keep an eye on heading into an arduous early-season test.

Can the Kings stop fouling?

Mike Brown said he didn’t recognize the team out on the floor in the opening night loss to the Trail Blazers. He said they got away from what they were doing in practice and the preseason. The one exception, however, was that his team continued to foul.

In 4 preseason games, the Kings committed an average of a little over 28 fouls per contest. On opening night, Sacramento committed 25 personal fouls, handing out 33 free throw attempts to Portland.

Not only is such undisciplined defense bailing out the opposition, sending them into the bonus, and giving them opportunities for free points, it disrupts any ability for the offense to gain momentum. De’Aaron Fox expressed that reality plainly after Wednesday’s loss, which featured an offense never being able to maximize it’s full potential.

“When we made our runs, we were getting stops,” he said, later agreeing with Matt George that defensive fouls they were committing disrupted his team’s rhythm.

This has been the primary and recurrent concern of this Kings team. They’ve shown promise on the defensive string, displaying moments where everyone on the string is in complete synchronicity. 

With two of the better teams in the league slated for the back-to-back, it’s important that the Kings get this issue under control sooner than later. 

They showed flashes in the first game. They fouled Portland just 4 times in the second quarter, conceding just 6 free throw attempts compared to the 14 attempts the Blazers had in the previous period. Sacramento also won that second quarter 32-19.

They have to amend the issue and stay consistent. If they can remain consistent and not foul, they’ll put together more stops, which in turn sets up for a more relentlessly lethal offense.

The possession game

In addition to all the fouling and the resulting free throws, the Kings also gave up 11 offensive rebounds and committed 15 turnovers. As such, the Blazers ran away with the possession game.

After practice on Thursday, Mike Brown noted that he’d never had to make mention of the possession game until the game against Portland.

“We have to win the possession game to give ourselves a chance,” the head coach explained. “And what that is is free throw attempts plus offensive rebounds minus turnovers. And if you do (the math on) those three things, Portland ended up with the number 33 and we ended up with the number 7. In all my years, I’ve never seen a gap that big before.”

More than just preventing easy trips to the line for the opponents, the Kings have to take advantage of their rebounding talent and protect the basketball in order to prevent such a lopsided difference in the possession game.

Keegan Murray’s debut

Though it has yet to be decided at this point, there’s a pretty good chance the rookie makes his NBA regular season debut against the Clippers. If not against LA, then probably against Golden State.

Either way, Keegan Murray should make his first appearance this weekend.

It was sort of meant as a joke, but the first preseason game where Murray was out, the Kings looked ridiculously sloppy in a win over Phoenix. They came back and put up an impressive showing in the final preseason contest, also without Murray, but people still wondered if no Murray meant being susceptible to significant problems. 

And without him on opening night, the thought sticks around.

Murray is a good player, maybe even better than good, and he may very well be one of the top talents on this roster, but his absence was not why they lost the game. 

While he would likely have boosted a nice three-point shooting performance (38.6% as a team Wednesday) and, more importantly, would have been added help on the glass (Sac gave up 11 offensive rebounds), the Kings as a whole failed to stay in a consistent rhythm and, really, lost the game in the final two minutes.

Maybe Murray playing prevents that, but there’s no definitive reason to die on that hill.

Does he make the team better, though? 

Hell yes he does. And his added shooting range, length, versatility, and effort on the boards will be a huge boost as this team takes on two teams that appear to be exceptional.

With the rookie back, who loses minutes? Okpala or Lyles?

Both Okpala and Lyles played somewhere around 15 minutes each against Portland.

Aside from the three early personal fouls, Okpala was forgettable on Wednesday. He had some moments where he provided some good ball pressure, but never did anything to impact the game or substantiate why he should be the starter.

It’s been noted by many that Okpala in the starting lineup counterbalances the defensive punch Davion Mitchell provides in the second unit. Meaning, that each can alternate their time to be out there to harass one of the opposition’s better talents. And it definitely makes sense if Okpala is able to stunt the opponent’s scoring.

However, Okpala has mostly shown that he can amass fouls; again, he had 3 early ones against Portland.

Plus, on the other end, he missed his one attempt from three before hesitating on another look later.

Brown seems to trust Okpala, so don’t be surprised to see him continue to get these opportunities to show what he can do. But how long does it last?

Lyles might lose some minutes in the interim because of that trust. Though, he remains a valuable piece off the bench, particularly on the glass, and will likely assume more minutes in the long run.

Even now, it might be based on matchups. Really, Okpala provides the defensive ability, but Lyles has the better offense.

Though, Lyles does have to play a little better and earn it still. And that could just mean lessening his load on offense.

On Wednesday, Trey Lyles scored 6 points on 2 of 7 from beyond the arc and grabbed 4 boards. While Mike Brown, for the most part, doesn’t want to stop his guys from putting up a jumper if it’s open and/or they’re feeling it, Lyles might have put up a few too many.

That could have been because Murray wasn’t there. On Lyles’ second attempt, it looked like the exact motion off an off-ball screen that fans will see the rookie do in order to get open looks. 

Lyles impressed late last season when he wasn’t trying to do too much and when things came to him. He seemed to integrate himself into the group in order to help the team by doing the right thing. With Murray’s scoring back, Lyles can get back to doing more of that. 

For reference, in contrast to his 7 attempts on Wednesday night, Lyles averaged 2.6 attempts from three per game in 24 efficient appearances for Sacramento last season.

It’s reasonable to assume Okpala could still get most of those minutes since he could continue to be the starter, but in the long run Lyles should get more minutes and have a bigger impact in a role where he doesn’t have to shoot 7 three’s in a game.

Will we see that smol lineup?

One of the things that stood out from Wednesday’s game was the lineup that did the most damage for the Kings in the game. In the second quarter, the Kings played what could be called their smol lineup: a four-guard grouping of De’Aaron Fox, Davion Mitchell, Terence Davis, Kevin Huerter, and Domantas Sabonis.

That unit played a large chunk of the quarter and was the driving force behind the 16-1 run that took place over about three and a half minutes of play.

As Twitter user @itsabestill pointed out, that lineup posted a +57.1 net rating, made up of a 142.1 offensive rating and a 85.0 defensive rating.

Perhaps it’s not necessarily the same five guys, but the small lineup seemed to really be working, and it seems the smaller, the better.

What combinations work and don’t work is something that remains fluid here after just one game, but early indications are that the second quarter unit from Wednesday should probably see the floor again this weekend.

Harrison Barnes’ defense

Harrison Barnes had an interesting game Wednesday. 

As suspected for this season as a whole, Barnes had a diverse statline. He scored 9 points on 4 of 8 shooting, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and a block. Very commendable.

With the added talent on the roster, it was presumed that the veteran’s workload would decrease for the better. As such, he would be able to impact the game with the little things, such as getting on the glass.

The question was what it would do for his defense.

Barnes, as noted, posted that block, and it came near the end of the second quarter when he played some nice defense to stay with Damian Lillard and block his turnaround attempt. However, overall, he had a rough night defensively.

In the third quarter, Barnes took Josh Hart on a switch and Hart got to the rim with Barnes getting spun around, unable to stay in front. He let Jerami Grant have some gapingly wide open looks from three; granted, he’s trying to provide help defense or help on the boards, but the distance he has to cover to put up a close out is too much.

Not to mention his poor defensive stand against Jerami Grant late in the game where Portland’s new acquisition breezed by Barnes through the middle, hit the layup, and was fouled by Sabonis for the first of what would be two back-breaking three-point play opportunities.

This isn’t to single out Barnes. The team defense as a whole needs work and other guys had some rough moments throughout the night, too. Huerter had issues guarding Hart, Holmes at times looked inept defending the paint, and Fox surrendered an easy backdoor cut

But Barnes has to be better defensively. He can really be a glue guy for this team and remains massively vital to their success, but he has to play better defense. 

Keep an eye on the vet when on that end of the floor. And, of course, the rest of the team as well.

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