Road Struggles Continue as Kings Get Blown Out in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 13: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings reacts during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on December 13, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The ship was already sinking before it left the port as the Sacramento Kings were smacked around in Philadelphia at the hands of a 103-123 demolition.

De’Aaron Fox made his return for Sacramento, but Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tobias Harris combined for 73 points as the 76ers dictated the flow of this contest and benefitted from 17 Kings turnovers for 25 points.

In spite of the large deficit that clouded overhead for most of the game, Domantas Sabonis added another double-double on his season with 22 points and 10 rebounds with 5 assists. Malik Monk looked more in tune with 16 points and 4 assists off the bench. And Fox scored 13 on just 5 of 15 from the field as he worked to regain his touch.

However, Philadelphia powered through this one with six guys in double figures as their best players lead the way. Embiid went 10 of 16 from the field for 31 points and 7 rebounds while Harden had a double-double with 21 points and 15 assists. And Harris finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. 

To start the game, Embiid hit the ground running and Sacramento had some nice moments of attacking inside, but Sabonis got two early fouls less than five minutes into it, so Mike Brown called upon Neemias Queta for relief. Embiid eventually drew three fouls on Queta as the Sixers got into the bonus early. Philadelphia’s superstar had 9 attempts from the free throw line and was causing headaches for coach Brown and Jordi Fernandez as the 76ers went on a 15-6 run. Tobias Harris piled on 14 first quarter points, but Fox and Sac’s bench unit (13 bench points in the period) found a bit of a flow fueled by hustle (12-2 in second chance points) as they trailed 7 after one.

Fox, Sabonis, Monk, Davis, and Lyles cut the lead down to 5 to begin the second, but Domas quickly received his third foul. He did stay in with the trust of his coach and with Embiid resting, but Philly stretched their lead back out to double digits once again as Harden—who had a double-double in the first half—lead a 14-0 run. The Kings were getting pummeled in turnovers (-9), three-point differential (-18 points despite being +5 in attempts), free throws (-9 in attempts), assists (-12), and fast break points (down 9-17) as the deficit began to grow out of hand. At the half, Sacramento found themselves down 55-80.

Sacramento came into the third playing much better, coming up with some good offensive possessions, getting some assists (8), and limiting turnovers (just 2). Plus, they were getting stops, holding the Sixers to 20 points in the quarter. The Kings were able to fight back into somewhat better position, evening the fast break points battle and going on a 17-7 run to end the period, but the 76ers still lead 101-83.

In the fourth, the Kings remained aggressive on both ends, looking like they were determined to cut into it, but the 76ers got the lead back above 20 points. Any kind of rhythm for the Kings where they could turn stops into their kind of offense seemed to get disrupted by a Sacramento mistake, which in the fourth was a return to turnovers; there was an offensive foul, a poor lob, and a lost ball that all disrupted anything that may have been developing. Down 91-117 with about six to go, Mike Brown called to the end of his bench with an eye on Toronto the next night.

With the Raptors waiting for the Kings up in Toronto, there could be reason to take the optimistic approach and say it was as good a time as ever to let one slip away. However, at the same time, Toronto is yet another Eastern Conference team with defensive chops that appears able to disrupt Sacramento as Milwaukee, New York, and Philadelphia have all done.

Another opponent dictating the outcome of the game

These defensive-minded Eastern Conference teams are proving an issue for the Kings, who like to push a high pace that benefits them on both ends of the floor.

For this game, the assist to turnover ratio for Sacramento was disgustingly unsustainable. The Kings were held to just 21 assists and committed 17 turnovers.

It’s now the fourth straight game where the Kings were held to 21 or less assists. Aside from the third quarter where they posted 8 assists, the 76ers did a solid job of limiting their opponent from utilizing player and ball movement.

This was vital for their lopsided win because the best moments for Kings basketball is when the movement and energy is high.

Better yet for Philadelphia, not only were they preventing assists, but they were helping force turnovers. The Sixers had 10 steals with half of them coming from James Harden alone.

There were also a lot of poor decisions by the Kings where they would gift wrap steals for the 76ers, lose their handle, or commit a foul.

One thing that helped make the Sixers’ job easier was the fact Sacramento went just 10 of 42 (23.8%) from three-point range, which likely helped spur some over-aggressiveness for the Kings.

Additionally, as eluded to, the Kings sent their opponent to the line 27 times, all of which coming in the first three quarters. It was a tough matchup to defend without fouling, but Keegan Murray got into foul trouble early, as did Sabonis, and so did Neemias Queta.

It was clear the 76ers, like some of these recent opponents of the Kings, controlled this game from start to finish.

The question of the backup 5 emerges again

Ahead of this game, the Sacramento Kings were listed as one of four teams interested in Nerlens Noel, who came to a mutual agreement with the Detroit Pistons that a trade is best for both sides.

Ever since it became evident that Richaun Holmes would not in fact fill in seamlessly as the backup center, Chimezie Metu has been thrust into the role. While not the biggest body, he has been serviceable and, at times, his ability to run the floor, play above the rim, and almost sneak up on defenses has generated sufficient production as he’s often played a prominent role in the bench unit’s energizing factor.

Mike Brown had expressed his fondness of Metu at the five, commending his abilities and noting that opposing teams have to prepare for two very different centers.

However, over the last couple of games against teams with better size, the question of the backup 5 pops up yet again. Hence the connections to Noel.

While Metu has done some good things—which to a lot of Kings fans and analysts have been surprised by—it’s evident against teams like the Bucks, Knicks, and 76ers that a guy with the stature of a true center might come in handy.

Kayte Christensen and Kyle Draper were highlighting Alex Len’s absence as being a real detriment to this Kings team Tuesday night, but really, Len has shown this season—despite a little weight loss in the offseason—that he is far too susceptible to mismatches while also not being the best at running the floor.

Len could be viewed as the bigger alternative to Metu when needed, but it is not at all clear that he would have solved anything, though, he admittedly would have been less susceptible to fouls than Queta (more on him in a bit).

As anyone can admit, the final answer to the backup 5 continues to elude the Kings. That is, for now, at least.

Hardly a return to form for Fox

In his first game following five days of rest, De’Aaron Fox may not have exploded or anything, but he looked slightly better physically.

From the beginning, he was aggressive going to the rim, getting Matisse Thybulle to commit his second foul in less than forty seconds into the game. At another point, he attacked inside to dish it back out to Kevin Huerter for three.

However, as he was looking a little more sprightly and getting to some of his spots (excluding the left elbow), his execution was lacking. After all, he went 5 of 15 from the field and just 1 of 7 from deep for 13 points.

It was hardly a return to form.

He could be working his way back into a rhythm, but again, it felt odd that Fox was missing some of the shots and from some locations that everyone expects a conversion. He hit his two looks from the top of the key, but went 2 of 5 in the paint. 

If it was in fact a rhythm thing, then Fox should come back and look more like himself against Toronto given the nature of this loss, which did not require the full, end to end load of effort.

Queta’s quick season debut

There’s one way to describe it: anti-climactic.

Some Kings fans have been brimming with conviction that it’s the 2021 second round selection Neemias Queta who is the solution that lies beneath everyone’s nose, that he is the answer to the troubles at the backup 5.

While worth a shot, it has always felt like a stretch, but fans were nevertheless elated to see him active for this game given Alex Len was ruled out with an illness.

In under two and a half minutes of play, Queta did utilize his length at one point on defense as well as his size on the offensive glass, but the young project displayed some greenness by stacking up three quick fouls. 

The first one in particular showed some awkward back pedaling as he defended inside, and the last one was saturated in inexperience as he got caught in the air.

Yes, guarding Embiid is tough, and as evidenced by Sabonis’ foul trouble, it was always going to be packed with foul risk, but those piled up remarkably quickly.

There has always been a chance that Queta can be developed and worked into the NBA to be a serviceable backup big that offers size and athleticism, but his first minutes of the season are not exactly painting the portrait of a smooth transition for him to get to that point anytime soon.

After three down games, Monk produced some sparks

When the Kings were playing some of their faster-paced stretches, it was Malik Monk primarily leading the charge.

It was a welcomed sight as he had been thwarted from making his typical impact since the second half of the game in Milwaukee.

On Tuesday, Monk went 4 of 10 from the field for 14 points, 3 rebounds, and most importantly, 4 assists. 

In the first three games of the road trip, Monk was held to just 2 assists.

Obviously, Sacramento lacked a little something in this one as well, but having the offseason acquisition play like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate again created a stark difference from the previous few games.

He started the game with a few unsavory turnovers, but in the second he was distributing and attacking inside. At one point in the second quarter, he pushed the ball up the floor and to the rim to dish it out to Harrison Barnes for a quick three-pointer.

When the Kings played probably their best stretch in the third quarter, Monk had a lot to do with it. He continued finding teammates, pushing it up the floor, and being aggressive. And he continued doing that into the fourth—turning defense into offense and going inside to find teammates on the outside—as he and his team tried to make it a game.

The Kings may have lost—and really badly—but this was a really good sign for Malik Monk and by extension Sacramento. If they are to get back on the winning track, Monk needs to get back on the Sixth Man of the Year track.

Going forward

As noted, the Raptors game tonight will potentially present some similar roadblocks for the Kings since Toronto is a top-ten defensive team that likes to play at a slower pace.

It is to Sacramento’s advantage that Nick Nurse’s team has not been playing the best basketball over their last seven games, going 2-5 in that time. 

On the year, Toronto has a 111.1 defensive rating, but it’s up at 114.8 over these last seven. Likewise, their middle-of-the-pack offensive rating is down slightly in this stretch as well.

Still, the Raptors commit the fewest turnovers per game and their opponents commit 17.1 turnovers per game, which is the second most. So Sacramento has to play disciplined tonight to be able to steal one.

Again, there’s that silver lining hanging out there for anyone to grab that says a bit of a blowout takes a considerable portion of the load off of the first of the back-to-back, which could carry over into the second. But it will require far better execution and discipline.

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