After losing the first of a back-to-back and getting off to a poor start in the second game, the Sacramento Kings managed to battle back and defend their home floor against the Denver Nuggets, 127-126.
It was the antithesis of the first game. Whereas the Kings started strongly against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets before falling off against them in the first one, they started shoddily before finishing sharply to come out on the good side of a one-point game.
Jokic lead all scorers with 40 points, adding in 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Also impressive was Bones Hyland, who started for the resting Jamal Murray and put up 20 points with 11 assists. Michael Porter Jr. got it going for a second early, but finished with 19 points. And Zeke Nnaji added 14 points.
However, just days after Christmas, three Kings offered three gifts in the form of excellent performances. De’Aaron Fox had 31 points and 13 rebounds, looking great as the game waned. In his first game back after the thumb fracture diagnosis, Domantas Sabonis also scored 31 points, adding in 10 boards and 5 assists. And Malik Monk, after an invisible presence the game prior, lead his team with 33 points off the bench with 3 assists.
Not only did Jordi Fernandez and the Kings make useful adjustments that allowed them to climb back, they also bore down and protected their home court after going 3-4 in their last seven home games coming into this one.
The Nuggets were far more aggressive from the start of this one compared to the previous game, namely Nikola Jokic. Denver was getting good looks inside while the Kings settled for a lot of jump shots; some of the looks were okay, but the ability to get inside seemed nonexistent. The Kings did only marginally better as the quarter went on, but their defense was not great. The field goal-percentage differential told the whole story (.308-.714) as Michael Porter Jr. began getting hot again. Denver lead 40-24.
The defense looked better early in the second and De’Aaron Fox began to make himself known, allowing for better offensive possessions. The progress for the defense was disrupted when Jokic returned as more shots at the rim opened up. Still, there were stretches, such as the one where the Kings went on a 6-point swing with a stop, a Monk three, another stop, and a Fox three-point play, but Denver always seemed able to respond. But Sac did manage to close the last few minutes of the half with a 10-4 run, using defense to generate offense. The Nuggets still lead 75-62 at the half.
The Kings were more aggressive inside, getting a lob to Domas and having the big man draw a foul on Jokic. The defensive intensity shot back up again as Sacramento went on a 10-2 run by creating offense off of stops and forced turnovers, getting the deficit under double digits. But Denver managed to respond as they did throughout the first half, going on a 18-6 run of their own. In the final two minutes of the quarter, the Kings whipped it back up with a 5-0, cutting Denver’s lead to 11 after it had been inflated once again.
The fourth quarter energy was high and the Kings continued the momentum they built in the final minute and a half of the third, hustling, defending, and getting to the rim. On the back of mainly Fox, they went on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to just 2 points. Jokic and the Nuggets created a little more cushion, but the Kings tugged back with a nice stretch. Fox was getting some critical late-game buckets, and the team came together for some nice defense, including a Domas closeout that gave Sacramento the last possession in a tied ball game with two seconds remaining.
With a little over two ticks remaining and the ball already advanced with a timeout, the Kings inbounded the ball to Monk as the defense focused on Fox. With Caldwell-Pope on him, Monk drove forth from the corner, drawing a foul from behind. At the line, he drew up the suspense, missing the first, but hit the second.
Denver had seven-tenths of a second remaining, inbounded the ball to Jokic at the top of the key, but the big man missed everything with a great closeout from Sabonis, sealing the one-point victory for Sacramento on their home floor.
Coming into this game, the Kings were 3-4 in their previous seven home games.
The importance of defending The Golden 1 Center was often noted by Alvin Gentry last season. Anyone who’s been around a contender knows how vital it is to establish that advantage and protect it.
With this team on the verge of proving they can make the leap into being a playoff team, it was disheartening to see them dull a little on their home floor.
To battle back in this game, overcoming the previous loss and the poor start in the first half, the Kings showed they have considerable toughness.
The offensive possessions improved as the game went on, but the box score shows just how much the defense played a role. Each quarter after the other, Sacramento held Denver to less and less points.
After a 40-point first period, this magnifies this sentiment. In the second, they scored 35, then 30 in the third, and they could manage just 21 points in the fourth against the Kings.
As much as they respect Richaun Holmes—who has a good history against Denver—the Nuggets were not lucky enough to draw two games where Sabonis was out.
He may not have flirted with the triple-double as he so often does, his on-floor presence and leadership on both ends was invaluable to his team’s success.
31 points is a hell of a night—not to mention going 2 of 2 from deep—but what appeared most impressive was his typical ability to be a disruption on the glass as well as his defense, which has been a joy to watch for most of this season.
At the end of the night, Domas had 3 offensive rebounds, but one specific moment on the offensive glass came in the final minute of play and was critical as the game was tied. He gave Trey Lyles the opportunity to grab the board after falling down on his layup attempt and ended up getting the slam to send it home and go up 126-124.
But again, his defense was something that stood out.
No, he did not, but who can?
On one occasion in the second quarter, Sabonis guarded Jokic near the free throw line in isolation. As Denver’s big man saw no opportunity to pass, he pump faked, spun, and put up a shot. Jokic is so big yet swift enough on his feet that it is so easy for him to draw fouls; as guys tense up to anticipate his strength, it becomes harder for them to move with him, often opening opportunities for officials to blow their whistle. And yet, Sabonis did not foul and kept a hand in his face, forcing the miss.
On another occasion in the fourth, Jokic went into iso on Sabonis at the perimeter. Domas came up to meet him and the two-time MVP faked and drove. Sabonis shuffled downhill along with the big fella, playing strong defense to force a tough shot and a miss.
And icing on the cake was his contest ( no clip available) with seven-tenths of a second remaining. His close out on Jokic helped heighten the difficulty of the situation and aided in forcing an air ball.
Sabonis was marvelous, showing how valuable he is to this team on so many different levels.
Of De’Aaron Fox’s 31 points, 17 came in the second half. Of those 17, 15 came in the fourth quarter.
He was showing off his killer ability in this one, playing a key role to climbing back and sealing the win.
But again, it was the late game surge from the point guard that stood out.
Fox continued doing some of what he was doing, but what he was able to do in the final period propelled his team to this gritty win.
As his head coach so often notes, Fox set the tone defensively. Obviously, Davion Mitchell, KZ Okpala, and Malik Monk all had a key role in the defensive stops that arose late, but it was hard not to look to the team general. Such was the case with this excellent activity and closeout on that end of the floor. From there, the Kings closed the final eight and a half minutes on a 30-18.
This was a great showing for De’Aaron Fox. A statement, really.
In terms of all-star hopes, he’s got to keep going on this route. Over his last seven games, the point guard is averaging 27.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists.
He continues to play well, and he looked like the killer he should be on Wednesday night.
Monk’s bounce back game
When the Kings lost on Tuesday night, it was painfully apparent that Malik Monk was a non-factor, especially with Sabonis out.
Nobody knew that better than Monk himself:
Speaking of energy and toughness, Monk had a great, hard foul against DeAndre Jordan on a lob. He came so close to tipping the ball away, but ultimately, he prevented an easy make and sent a poor free throw shooter to the line.
Overall, he was phenomenal and demonstrated why he is one of the best and most vital players to this team’s success, especially late with some of the finishes he had in the second half (see here and here).
Monk shot 12 of 21 from the field (the same as Fox) and went 4 of 8 from deep. Plus, he got to the line and hit the game-winning free throw. Of course, he made it interesting by missing his first attempt, but he hit the second.
In the prior five games leading into this one, Monk was averaging 9.8 points on 33.3% from the field and 15.0% from deep. It was a welcomed sight for the Kings to see Monk reemerge. Hopefully he can keep that going.
Another nice performance for Holmes. What’s it mean?
Richaun Holmes had a nice game as the backup 5 on Tuesday night with Sabonis out. With the two-time all-star back, Holmes got minutes in the same role and performed well again, perhaps even better.
It was easy to view Holmes’ performances as auditions for other teams, and maybe that is the reality. But still, the former starter is advancing the conversation. It’s not just that he’s demonstrated he still has starter value, but now he’s showing that there is hope for him as the backup to Domas.
Ultimately, since he makes over $11 million, moving Holmes would be ideal, but just this offseason, the Kings ran into issues moving him. Demand should be there and the opportunity for a multi-team deal could increase as the deadline approaches, but Sacramento could have the same predicament.
What if Holmes can’t be moved?
It’s hard to say whether or not he can, but on the hypothetical that they can’t, these last two games have shown that he may be a solution to the backup center.
The options surrounding Holmes are slowly increasing when it seemed just weeks ago that he was destined to be a non-factor, and a mysterious one at that.
In this game, he looked comfortable and particularly on the defensive end, which seemed like the bane of his existence out on the floor this season.
Given his early struggles to apply the defensive fundamentals taught by Mike Brown and company, to see him backpedal and provide excellent help in the paint to get a block was an excellent sign.
Maybe Holmes’ last two games are an audition for interested teams, but it is also showing there may be life for him as the backup to Sabonis.
Mitchell and Okpala’s defense
A moment needs to be taken to give credit to Davion Mitchell, who won the Defensive Player of the Game chain, and KZ Okpala, who was a felt presence in his 17 minutes on the floor.
While neither stood out in the score column, their effect on defense and elsewhere was much needed in this win over a first-place team.
After this back-to-back, the Kings get one day before the Utah Jazz come to town.
Under first-year head coach—and candidate for the job in Sacramento—Will Hardy, the Jazz have been a pleasant surprise. With the departure of Quin Snyder and their two star players, Utah appeared to be in the process of a long rebuild. However, it was quite clear early on that this was not the case as the team started 10-3.
They’ve since had their fortunes come back to earth. After their loss against the Warriors on Wednesday night, the Jazz are now 19-18.
Lauri Markkanen and company will be another difficult matchup for the Kings, but after protecting their home floor on Wednesday, they’ll look to do the same on Friday.