Ahead of a daunting six-game road trip, the Kings came out on the winning side of a solid defensive battle over the Bulls, 110-101.
There was a point earlier this season where this team probably would have ended up on the losing side; scoring below the season average would have probably spelled out a bad outcome. But over the last week or two, this Kings defense is really showing out, moving only upwards in terms of the statistical rankings.
Though his numbers are down this season, Zach LaVine went off for a 41-point game, but the other two members of their central three players did not have such great nights. Nikola Vucevic was a factor at first, but he finished with just 12 points and 6 rebounds. Sort of in reverse fashion, DeMar DeRozan was held to 2 first half points, but finished with 18 points.
Once again, seven different guys for the Kings were in double-digit scoring. Malik Monk lead with 20 points and 5 assists off the bench, Harrison Barnes posted a 17-point, and De’Aaron Fox looked better with 16 points and 7 rebounds. Domantas Sabonis may not have scored a ton, but his 11 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists got him a marvelous triple-double, his first of the season.
The Bulls defense looked really strong from the beginning, but the Kings did not help themselves out by failing to get into the paint, shooting their first 9 field goal attempts from three-point range. Also, Sacramento came out of the gate with 4 turnovers in the first half of the period compared to Chicago’s 1, not looking all that sharp. With the help of LaVine and Vucevic, the Bulls managed to form a 13-2 run, but once Sac got some scores inside, they leveled it out and got out to their own 15-7 run to lead 29-27 at the end of one.
One minute into the next quarter, the Kings forced a quick timeout from Billy Donovan with some great defense and some emphatic scores. Sac’s defense helped create an advantage in the second period turnovers, 7-11 after starting 6-1. Malik Monk also came in as a spark on offense and defense, amassing 5 assists and 3 steals in the first half. And notably, DeMar DeRozan was held to just 1 of 7 from the field. As such the Kings lead 62-47 going into halftime.
Zach LaVine kept up his excellent play and DeRozan joined him in the third as Chicago made an effort to cut into Sacramento’s lead, getting it to single digits. In fact, momentum appeared to be swinging their way as LaVine’s scoring figure got to 30 before the four minute mark. After an energizing slam from Monk off of a steal, coach Donovan called timeout to try to preserve their comeback, and out of it, his team continued their crusade, nearly eliminating the deficit, down 82-78 after three. Credit to the Bulls defense, the Kings managed just 20 points and 4 paint points after 24 in the first half.
Early in the fourth, Mike Brown was T’d up after displaying outrage over a no-call on his point guard’s drive to the rim. A couple more calls did not go Sacramento’s way, but they managed to hold their lead, going on an 11-3 run to stretch it back out to 9. Chicago cut it to a 5-point deficit, but 7 straight points came from the free throw line in addition to some continued defensive play. In the end, after a quarter where the Kings committed just 1 turnover, they came out on top with the defense stepping up in the final three minutes of the game.
After a pair of blowouts, the Kings can take solace knowing that in the face of adversity, they bore down and sealed up the win on their home floor.
“It was just a great way to grind out an ugly basketball (game) and figure out how to get wins, mostly by getting stops, especially down the stretch when it really mattered,” Mike Brown noted postgame.
This defense is no joke
Whenever any discussion begins about the Kings defense as of late, it almost sounds like a perfect opportunity for one of Rod Serling’s opening monologues to The Twilight Zone. It’s easy to imagine him, cigarette in hand, saying something along the lines of: “Imagine, if you will, a Sacramento Kings team that is actually good on the defensive end.”
They have been absolutely terrific on that side of the ball. Over their last seven games, Sacramento is posting a 106.1 defensive rating, which is among the very top in that stretch. On the year as a whole, they are now 16th in that category.
Through these last couple of weeks, the communication, the rotations, the switches, and the execution have been coming together excellently, and the Kings strung together their third game in a row where there defense stole the show.
First of all, various Kings were displaying good on-ball defense. Guys like Fox, Huerter, and Murray displayed their chops in that department. In fact, the rookie generated the best example of transition defense, getting a great block.
Sacramento was also turning forcing turnovers on various occasions. Early in the game, De’Aaron Fox poked a ball away on some quick help. In one instance, Monk jarred the ball loose as the Bulls brought it up the floor, and in another, when Chicago hit the gas, Huerter stopped the ball-handler and Davion Mitchell’s help forced a turnover. And there was a moment where the team defense—the rotations, the communication—was so sound it resulted in a lost ball for LaVine.
And perhaps most important, the Kings accumulated stops when it mattered, which allowed them to win this one. Late in the contest, there were a few moments where the team defense forced the Bulls into the lowest possible percentage shot. Without dishing out disrespect, that happened to result in both of those shots coming from Alex Caruso, who, to his credit, is a special defender, but is also the kind of guy a defense can live with taking shots.
“I feel like the last few games, we’ve really shown what we can do defensively as a team,” Fox assessed after the victory. “Obviously, we still put up a lot of points, but just knowing that we can get stops whenever we need them is a great thing.”
This is just an overview. Not enough can be said about the defensive performance (just read on and see for yourself).
DeRozan held to 33.3% from the field
While LaVine did get his 41-points, a big reason the Kings won this game was they contained DeMar DeRozan. Last season in February, when Sacramento visited Chicago, DeRozan dropped 38 points. The five-time all-star is always a danger to wind a defense down with his mid-range abilities and the frequency with which he can get to the line.
However, on 6 of 18 from the field, he managed to only accumulate 18 points.
A variance of guys checked DeRozan, all with something good to take away from that collective effort to hold him to 33.3% from the field.
Harrison Barnes had some nice moments, getting up a few excellent shot contests against the savvy guard, one in the first half, another in the second. Keegan Murray guarded him for a good portion of the third as well, contesting shots and having a great showing against him on the baseline near the rim, forcing a miss. Even Fox and Monk had their moments with Fox picking his pocket at one point.
It was a collective effort, but a special tip of the cap goes to KZ Okpala, who was disruptive on DeRozan from the very start. The pressure he put on Chicago’s guard was ceaseless and stood out in this game. Plus he also contested his shots with a similar flare.
It may have been one component of a more expansive defensive effort, but limiting DeRozan was huge, especially knowing how close the game ended up being.
Defending the rim: all-hands on deck
With the way the season started, many called for one, but now it’s evident that coach Brown, in fact, does not need one. That’s because he’s got his guys defending the inside by making the shot as difficult as possible for the offensive player, utilizing positioning and all possible verticality to do so without fouling.
A lot of credit has been given to Sabonis in this regard, plus there’s been some risidual recognition for Metu, and that’s all for good reason. In the win over the Bulls, Sabonis continued guarding against fellow bigs and smaller players to defend inside, and Metu showed some chops as well.
One of the things about this defensive philosophy is that the center is not always the low man. With all the activity involved, various guys have to step up into that role. And again it has nothing to do with rim protecting prowess in order to defend there.
Look at Terence Davis last week against the Suns. At one point, the guard did not step up out of the restricted area, thus allowing an easy lane for a dunk. Mike Brown called timeout and demonstrated to his player what he should have done. And a little bit later, a similar thing unfolded, but this time TD stepped up and drew the charge.
Also, look at Davion Mitchell, who racks up plenty of charging fouls when he steps up to assume the responsibility of the low man.
After the win over the Pacers on Wednesday night, Brenden Nunes asked a terrific question to Mike Brown, noting the fact that smaller guys have been stepping up to assume that task and wondering how hard it is to get players like that to buy into it.
Coach Brown cited the 6’1″ Mo Williams from his time in Cleveland.
“If he was the low man, he had the same responsibilities as if LeBron was the low man … and Mo understood that if he does his work early and sometimes sacrifices his body by getting there at the tag early and high enough to create opportunities to take a charge then good things will happen for us,” Brown said. “And the next time he’s the low man, whoever’s rolling to him, they’re gonna be a little more cautious where they’re gonna roll a little bit more carefully because they know that paint is crowded.”
There were no charges drawn in this win over the Bulls, but in terms of taking on the role of the low man and disrupting some of Chicago’s shots near the basket, the Kings displayed some nice examples.
One example comes from Okpala, who slid to his right as LaVine charged at the rim. With Murray guarding the driver, Okpala stepped up in front of LaVine and went straight up to force a miss.
However, most credit goes to Fox for this.
At one point, Fox was the low man, standing in the paint. He was decisive and smart enough to get into perfect positioning to do a couple of things. For one, he was not too deep so that he could still get up a good contest, and nor was he too close to risk getting blown by. Also, by being in that position, he was where he needed to be for a deflection or a steal, the latter of which he ended up with.
In another moment, Fox’s man was in the opposite corner when Andre Drummond rolled off of a set pick and the two defenders forced the ball out of Goran Dragic’s hands. Thus it appeared the monstrous Drummond would have an easy slam, but not so. De’Aaron Fox was there to meet him, springing right up to get enough of a contest to disrupt the shot, resulting in a miss.
Regardless of who’s down there, it’s a good sign for Mike Brown’s defense that his guys are all-in on being the low man whenever the time comes for it.
The Kings just handled a back-to-back
Based on the two wins and the defensive performances, maybe one forgot the Kings were playing a weekend back-to-back.
Two games in two days is always tough, but in terms of fighting through adversity, there is no better challenge, especially when both contests were matinees.
Sacramento lost both games of their first back-to-back and later lost the second of a road back-to-back during Thanksgiving week, but they took care of business. Sure it did not involve a lot of traveling, but one can’t take anything away from the team for handling their business before they hit the road for a brutal trip. Plus, they did it in what coach Brown called “an ugly game.”
This was very telling regarding the character and grit of this team.
It was really important that the Kings could get this victory at home because the next six are on the road as the Kings head out for a long trip through the midwest and east coast.
It starts in Milwaukee against the Bucks, who are currently 16-6. They currently have the second ranked defense this season, so it will be the third game in a row against a defensively adept squad, it’s just this will be the toughest task of the three.
After that, the trip ventures to Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, and then Detroit. (The games against the 76ers and Raptors form a back-to-back).
As anyone can tell, it won’t be easy.