In the absence of Domantas Sabonis and head coach Mike Brown, the Jordi Fernandez-lead Kings came in with a smart approach against the first place Denver Nuggets, but ultimately came up short on their home floor, 106-113.
Without Domas, De’Aaron Fox stepped up for an efficient 26 points, Kevin Huerter put up 21, Harrison Barnes had 13 points with 8 boards, and Trey Lyles had an immensely positive night with 11 points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench.
Sacramento utilized pace and a steady dose of inside attacks to get off to a nice start. Many of their strategies coming into this game prevented Nikola Jokic much opportunity to make an MVP-type impact in the first half, which lent a lot to the Kings’ early lead.
Nevertheless, the Serbian had a near triple-double with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 11 assists on the back of a nice second half. Jamal Murray also had a solid game with 25 points and 7 assists, but it was Michael Porter Jr. and his 30-point night that made all the difference as half of his points came from beyond the arc.
Sacramento showed their game plan for the night: utilize the full court and attack the paint. Anytime the Kings could get out, run, and find quick offense, things seemed to go their way. Even without their best player, Alex Len and Richaun Holmes appeared to be stepping up early, providing effort and energy not seen this season and giving their team a big advantage when Jokic rested. Sacramento got an early lead in paint points (20-12) and free throw attempts (5-0), leading 32-20 at the end of one.
With the back-to-back MVP still resting, the Kings hit the throttle, forming a 17-point lead. Their defense against the Jokic-less Nuggets was excellent, remaining active and engaged to produce offense on the other end. The lead subsided a little, more from Sac’s sloppy play than anything (5-2 in turnvovers during the period). Off of that, Jokic and company formed a run. But Sacramento still lead at the half in paint points and on the scoreboard, 56-47.
The Kings came out in the second half doing much of the same. They got Jokic switched onto smaller players while also continuing their constant attack inside. But Denver began reorienting more towards paint scoring (22 in the third quarter), slowly shrinking the deficit as both teams struggled to secure stops on the defensive end. But whether it was Davion Mitchell or Trey Lyles, someone on the Kings was preventing the Nuggets from seizing the lead as Sac lead by 4.
Denver kept their momentum going and it was met with De’Aaron Fox’s late-game intensity which had made itself known in the third quarter, but surfaced in the fourth in the form of three-pointers. The turnovers were up for the Kings, though, as the lead seemed to teeter back and forth very slowly. Even as Sac got into the bonus, the Nuggets hit two big three’s and scored off of a Fox turnover to suddenly gather an 8-point lead with two minutes remaining, which pretty much sealed the deal on their victory.
Given the circumstances, it was nice that the game was as close as it was, but the fact is the Kings dropped a close game at home allowing 23 points off of 16 turnovers.
A purpose for Len and a nice audition for Holmes
A loss is never something to seek out solace in. Then again, before it started, it was easy to assume this could be a rout.
Not only was Sacramento’s best and most important player out, but his reinforcements have struggled thus far to maintain a consistent role.
So when the two guys who filled in for Domas actually show up, play hard, and perform adequately, that is something worth feeling good about.
In other words, Alex Len proved—if not just validated—that he has a purpose as the third center. And Richaun Holmes proved to other teams that he still has value.
Prior to the start of the season, Alex Len was viewed as the perfect fit for the third center on the roster. More specifically, he was viewed as one who could battle with big-bodied centers just like Nikola Jokic as he did a few times last season. His experienced presence seemed potentially useful for any game they’d play against Denver.
So when he had the chance to start in Sabonis’ absence, Len had the opportunity to reconfirm that sentiment.
For the most part, he seemed to.
In the first quarter, Len played six minutes until Richaun Holmes came in for relief of the starting big man, who had not seen game action for a while. In his initial load of time, he looked great, playing fundamentals-driven defense, running the floor, and being felt on the boards.
He reentered the game later in the second quarter and did not have quite the same rhythm or effect, but still battled with Jokic, forcing a miss on one occasion with strong defense.
Eventually, the big man got into foul trouble early in the second half, amassing a couple in under four minutes.
Still, it was an overwhelmingly positive showing for Alex Len. It would be interesting how much better it’d have been if he was in better condition because lack of play in addition to his illness from a few weeks ago have forced him to work uphill in that department.
Even better was Richaun Holmes, who had his best game of the season. He played with energy and purpose, something that has not brimmed from him this season or really since his move to the bench.
When he came in, he picked up where Len left off just with some added energy. Holmes put up 6 quick points, including making a few push shots. And he played some good defense, partaking in stops and not fouling.
He continued that into the second, posting a really nice defensive stance against the smaller Jamal Murray (readers can see a glimpse at the very start of this clip), proving he still has value as a center who can switch.
Though fouls did get called on Holmes, his ability to not rely on his hands looked far better in this game than it has in other appearances this season.
And perhaps the best moment for Holmes was when he earned a trip to the line in the third quarter off of a nice fake and drive that was tee’d up by his push shots earlier in the contest (and, as luck would have it, NBA.com does not have a clip).
Alex Len, as noted, substantiated his place on this team and in the league. He is a pro; not special, but experienced and especially useful against a big, physical 5 like Jokic.
On the other hand, Richaun Holmes put out a great advertisement to other teams. Honestly, that’s probably the main source of motivation behind his game on Tuesday. He’d had the backup 5 spot and looked not only lost, but also perhaps disinterested in the role. It’s unlikely he put in an added effort to regain that. Instead, he probably knew he had to prove his value.
And that in itself benefits the Kings. Holmes is making over $11 million as a non-factor; even as an adequate backup behind Sabonis the argument could be made that he should be moved based on his cap hit alone. So if he manages to boost his value in however long of a stretch Sabonis is out, then that helps Monte McNair and company out in maximizing the most out of a trade or series of trades.
But who knows for sure with Holmes?
“I think for the most part of the season, I’ve been overthinking a lot of stuff when I go out there,” the center said postgame. “So I think just going out there and just playing the way I normally play and do the things I normally do, just to get myself in that rhythm, I think that’s kind of how I wanted to attack it and it’s how I want to attack the rest of the season.”
For now, though, both Len and Holmes impressed. Let’s see what they do moving forward.
Can the Kings protect their home court?
It’s only due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the backup 5 role and the absence of Domantas Sabonis that this takeaway was not featured higher.
Not only did the Kings lose Tuesday night, but they lost another home game.
In their last seven home games, the Kings are 3-4, having lost three of their first four home games in an important stretch.
And yes, Sabonis was out and even head coach Mike Brown was not there, but when the game goes down to the wire like that, where it is tied or close to tied with minutes remaining, home teams have to capitalize on their advantage.
The Kings didn’t.
They put up a good effort and made the game close, but it means nothing if they lose. And a loss at home magnifies that.
Sabonis may be out, but this Kings team has an issue showing that they can protect their home floor. They seemed to for a moment there in November, but lately it is becoming an issue.
The Kings do not want to be forming a reputation among opponents that they can be beat at home, and as it pertains to the heavy load of home games over the next four weeks, that importance grows tenfold.
De’Aaron Fox and the officials
De’Aaron Fox had an efficient scoring night, hitting 10 of 16 from the field for 26 points. Perhaps the complaint could be made that he should have had a better night, but his impact on both ends of the floor was felt.
The more fascinating thing is that he seems more and more affected by what he feels are a lack of calls.
Not only is the point guard displeased with the mute whistle when he drives into the paint and past bodies, but elsewhere as well.
In the second quarter, De’Aaron Fox got called for what could be called a ticky-tack lane violation that allowed an extra free throw attempt to the opponent. On his way back up the floor, Fox chirped at the official and got a technical foul.
Later in the game, he was adamant that he was fouled on a three-point make, seeming to make the argument that the defender was in his landing space
About a week ago, Fox got ejected after he felt a foul was missed and his demeanor with the officials has only declined.
It’s easy to see how and why Fox is so frustrated, but is he on a path to changing anything?
When Sabonis ran into foul trouble on the defensive end he fixed it by adjusting his defensive fundamentals and said he was “nicer” to the officials.
But Fox is faced with a shortage of whistles going his way. Is confronting the refs the right way to flip that around?
The officials probably don’t like it, but what else can you do but call attention to it?
Trey Lyles as the small 5
Trey Lyles once again proved he can stayed ready and make an impact even if the minutes were not anticipated.
Aside from going 1 of 6 from deep, he was terrific in nearly all aspects of the game.
Perhaps most impressive was when Jordi Fernandez decided to go small and have Lyles play the 5.
The scenario was used earlier in the season during a game in Charlotte. In that game, Holmes looked bad as he has for most of this season, and Len did not look too great out there, especially when having to switch.
Interestingly, in a game where Holmes and Len were useful, Lyles as the small 5 came into play on a few occasions and made a difference.
Late in the third, Lyles got a three, which was followed up by a pump fake and drive from the perimeter for a score. In terms of trying to get Jokic to move more defensively and have to come outside to defend his man, playing Lyles at the small 5 really paid off.
Usually Chimezie Metu is viewed as that small 5, but Lyles—who is probably stronger than Metu—is proving to be more valuable in that role. Not only is he a far better outside shooter, Lyles is just a more aware player regarding seeing the floor.
Trey Lyles made a great impact and continues to show the different things he can offer off the bench.
“That’s something that, moving forward, we know we have it there,” coach Fernandez said after the game. “Trey can play multiple positions, and I thought today he was good.”
A tip of the hat to Jordi Fernandez
Jordi Fernandez maybe couldn’t win his second game as a head coach, but he sure as hell came close to it.
If Mike Brown was to miss a game and be forced to hand the keys to Fernandez, a pair of games against the Nuggets was the best possible scenario.
For six years, Jordi Fernandez was an assistant under Mike Malone in Denver. Much of the strategy in this one—which looked good for the most part—came in large part from his understanding of the opponent. On top of that, he was able to get his guys to implement that plan for a good deal of the game.
He took blame for the 8-0 Nuggets run in the fourth, but in the big picture, it does not seem like Jordi Fernandez will be on the Kings sideline for too many more years as a head coaching job appears to be in his future.
Sacramento takes on this same Denver Nuggets squad on again tonight for the second of their back-to-back.
One will have to await word on Sabonis, but there’s a good chance he sits that one out as well.
The difference he would make would be massive and may have resulted in a win on Tuesday night, but it will be more of the same tonight for Sacramento’s centers.
Perhaps the Kings can gain an advantage playing them on such a quick turnaround.
“The beauty of this series is it’s almost like a playoff (series),” Jordi Fernandez noted after the game. “You go home, you’re not happy, you’re gonna come back and play again.”
Good point about Trey. Don’t know why we haven’t tried him at C more consistently. He’s stronger and heavier than Metu, just a bit short I think he can defend and rebound well enough as a backup center.
You’re probably right about Domas too, don’t think he would play until Friday at the earliest..after a full week, give it enough time for the swelling and soreness to go away.
If Trey or whoever else can’t be good enough at C, I hope strikes a deal soon to land Bamba or Noel. Maybe sign Big Cuz to a 10 day? lol