Backup Center Uncertainty Continues, Sabonis Leaves Early in Loss to Wizards

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 23: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings grimaces as he holds his hand in the fourth quarter against the Washington Wizards at Golden 1 Center on December 23, 2022 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 License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Washington Wizards came into Sacramento on the last of their road trip and played exactly how the Kings wanted to play, smashing the home team, 125-111.

Domantas Sabonis had his second straight triple-double with 20 points, 15 boards, and 10 assists; Malik Monk also notably had 16 points and 4 assists; and De’Aaron Fox went for 26 points, but the Kings could hardly buy a basket in this one, shooting 44% from the field with just 19 assists. 

It was not their offense as much as their defense that contributed to this loss. Like the Charlotte game on Monday, the Kings allowed the visitor to get comfortable. Plus, they allowed 70 paint points, 24 fast break points, and watched as their opponent committed just 9 turnovers.

“They just didn’t feel us, man,” Monk appraised postgame, adding: “They just punked us tonight.”

The Wizards earned theirs with high energy and rhythm formed early in the game. Kyle Kuzma scored 32 with 9 rebounds and 5 assists, Bradley Beal put up 24 points, and Rui Hachimura added 21 off the bench.

Sacramento played well from the moment of opening tip off; Sabonis in particular was looking sharp, attacking, grabbing offensive rebounds, getting to the line, and dishing out some beautiful assists. However, the Wizards began getting some fast break points (leading in the first 10-2), using hustle and pace to get inside for good shots (20 first period paint points) and to tie the game up on a few occasions. Washington also had no turnovers and shot a flat out better percentage from the floor (.541-.417) as the Kings defense (Terence Davis in particular) had issues here and there, which gave the Wizards a 29-27 lead after one.

With Sabonis resting, Washington kept pushing it and getting easy buckets in the paint as Mike Brown shuffled between backup centers. Meanwhile, the Kings were struggling to get the ball to go through the rim. Sac also got sloppy with the ball, allowing their opponent to run the floor on them and get boisterous scores. The first half was beautifully encapsulated on a sequence where the Kings missed a good look from three that was nicely set up only to have the Wizards get the rebound and push it for a score. Washington had just 1 turnover and lead 68-50 at half.

Not much seemed to change at half time as the Wizards stretched their lead out, taking advantage of Sacramento mistakes in order to get good looks. Kyle Kuzma, Bradley Beal, and the rest were just piling it on, hitting the 30-point mark in their lead over the Kings. Sacramento cut it down to 20 points again, getting to the line far more so (earning 9 trips in the period) and showing some life defensively—with the help of Trey Lyles—as the Wizards had 5 turnovers. They went on a bit of a run, but they still found themselves swimming in the deficit, down 19 points after three.

The lead remained more or less the same for the Wizards as the need for perfection plagued Sacramento. Similar in theme to other aspects in this game, the Kings looked great on the offensive glass, yet they could not buy a second chance bucket. The effort was all there for Mike Brown’s team as the defense got some good stops and forced Washington’s use of timeouts, but they could never quite climb out of it.

Notes on the backup center

Though the lack of an answer here did not necessarily cause the loss, the absence of a consistent backup center was making itself known in this loss.

Neemias Queta was called upon for the reserve 5 minutes as expected. Other than a foul that allowed an and-one attempt, there was not a ton to say about his performance.

That’s because Richaun Holmes replaced him a minute or two into the second quarter. Holmes came in and while he looked a tiny bit better on a paint contest—just compared to the sample size he’s provided this season—continued to show an unhealthy propensity to use his hands while defending.

By the looks of it, it seemed Holmes came in because his ability to switch is better than Queta. In many of the first defensive stances for the Kings with Queta out there, the Portugese big man was kept out of the paint because Taj Gibson spaced the floor standing in the corner. Any inside presence was essentially nullified and Queta is not ideal under such circumstances.

Figuring Holmes would be better at guarding a wider range of positions, Mike Brown appeared to go with him.

The Wizards went on a good bulk of their run with either backup 5 on the floor, so the success was clearly not all that great.

In the second half, Holmes got the meaningful backup center minutes again, just about three of them. Not much to go off, but Holmes had an offensive rebound and contributed to a team stop. He also fouled yet another driver with his hands, a continuous problem for the big man on that end.

Honestly, expect Queta to continue getting reserve center minutes in most cases. This seemed like a matchups-based decision.

This was not necessarily a bad sign for Neemias Queta, but with the night all said and done, it was not the best of signs for Holmes in the end.

In what was essentially garbage time after Sabonis went to the locker room (more on that in a moment), Chimezie Metu checked in to close the game.

At first it seemed like a bad news for Metu that Holmes came in as the more switch-friendly big.

Earlier in the season, Metu won a lot of favor with his performance against the Warriors where the Kings made a near late-game comeback. Metu’s ability to switch and run the floor allowed Sacramento to climb back late and make it interesting.

Holmes would got another opportunity as his head coach noted he would, but not getting to close out the game does not lend much credence to the idea that Holmes earned anything in the future during this loss.

But nothing is for certain. Queta has not locked up the role by any means, and Holmes is not out of luck. The carousel at the backup 5 role is very much in motion.

“I’m gonna keep searching until I can find (the right fit),” Mike Brown reiterated after this one

Bad night defensively

As Malik Monk and others expressed, the Kings were not felt in this game. That’s why it felt so much like the Hornets game on Monday night.

For one, the Wizards had their way inside the paint. Washington was moving the ball around, generating good looks from the outside, and they also did a good job of collapsing the defense to generate easy shots for their teammates, as Bradley Beal does here.

And while the Kings had some good defensive moments sprinkled throughout the game, for the most part they looked out of it. Here, it seems like there is no communication, allowing Corey Kispert an open door into the paint for a good cut and score.

Worse, the transition defense was lacking as the Wizards pushed it quite often—almost the way one would expect the Kings to do—to help keep their lead up. There were too many opportunities for Washington. Sometimes it would come off a sloppy turnover, but many times, it came off a missed shot.

And really underlining the notion, Washington did not commit a turnover until the closing moments of the first half. There were almost a whole half of basketball where the opponent had no turnovers. Credit the Wizards partially, but ridicule is deserved on the part of the Kings for never forcing the issue.

Since they began their six-game road trip, Sacramento’s defense has not looked all that great outside the win in Cleveland. In these previous nine games, the Kings have a defensive rating of 116.1. Overall on the year, it is 113.2 and there were stretches where it looked spectacular.

More polishing is needed on that end, and since the group did not earn a day off on Christmas Eve, they can work on it at practice.

A potentially big negative: Domas’ thumb/hand

Late in the game as the Kings were putting an effort into a comeback, Sabonis grabbed his right hand. He had it on Beal’s back after the Wizards had come up with a steal and Sac was pressing. Beal spun and Domas immediately went to grab his hand, as is visible at the end of this clip.

It’s not exactly clear if it was his hand or his thumb specifically, but the big man checked out and went straight to the locker room.

Head Coach Mike Brown did not have an update when asked at the press conference (when does he ever?), so keep an eye out for any word on Sabonis’ right hand/thumb.

Sabonis had been listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Lakers due to an issue with his left hand that was aggravated again after Monday’s game. The big man ultimately played against LA, having a potentially dangerous moment where his head was hit back as he moved upward for a rebound.

Again, Sabonis had no lingering pain as he played this game, but this is another ding on the elite center.

Thankfully for him and his team there are three days off until they play again.

Fox 61.5% from the charity stripe

Even as he started quietly, De’Aaron Fox ended with a pretty decent game.

However, his clip from the free throw line was bad.

Though it was in no way a key to why his team lost, Fox got to the line 13 times, which is awesome, but he only hit 8 attempts.

De’Aaron Fox has been good from the line this year, shooting 80.3%, and has bounced back from any of the bad nights at the charity stripe.

It was just salt on the wound having to watch not only a rough game, but also a choppy night from the line for Fox on a night where he was actually getting to there (it was the first time since early November that he had double digit attempts).

A positive: Trey Lyles again stayed ready

Since it’s Christmas, here’s a gift: a positive amid a bad night.

Trey Lyles has had his minutes fluctuate. Despite playing well in November an illness sort of took him out of the rotation near the end of that month. It was a bummer because he was playing well.

In some inconsistent time since, he has no quite regained that rhythm he had previously.

However, in this loss, he stood out, showing that his greatest strength—aside from his rebounding or poised awareness on the floor—is his ability to stay prepared for any opportunity at any time. Things don’t always go his way, but the mental and physical effort is always there. 

Frankie Cartoscelli put it well during the second half:

Lyles finished the night having gone 6 of 6 from the field, including 2 of 2 from three, for 14 points, 4 rebounds, an assist, a block, and a steal in 23 minutes of floor time.

Given the matchup, which really put a spotlight on the backup 5, Lyles had a good chance to make an impact in this game, and he did. He showed his effort on the hardwood, got inside, rebounded, played some pretty good defense, and hit his shots.

In spite of a forgettable loss, Lyles was a bright spot. Maybe he can capture that solid rhythm again.

Going forward

Now comes three days off; just in time for Christmas.

For Thanksgiving, the Kings were stuck on the east coast during a difficult three games in four nights, so being at home and not having to go anywhere will be a huge boost in addition to the three off days.

That way they’ll be well rested when the Denver Nuggets come to town for a two-game series-like back-to-back starting Tuesday night.

Mike Malone’s team will be coming off of one day off for that game as they play the Suns at home on Christmas day. Denver is currently 20-11 and in first place in the conference going into that holiday matchup. And Nikola Jokic is averaging 24.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.2 assists, the last of which would be a career high.

In other words, things rev up in difficulty after the three days of rest.

Until then, though, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
5 months ago

Good points about the Kings D. Opponents aren’t turning it over because the Kings aren’t making them or at least making it tough. They need to play the lanes more and have active hands to force deflections. I agree, Trey was arguably 2nd or 3rd best player for the night, after Sabo & Swipa. Hopefully Sabonis’ hand will be alright. Such a wasted opportunity with Charlotte & Washington games, who are lesser opponents and had the rest advantage. Especially the Wizards as it was the end of a 6 game trip for them. Should’ve got at least one of those knowing Denver was coming for two games in row. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to you and yours also! I really appreciate this great coverage of the Kings here!