With Loss in Memphis, Is a Rotation Adjustment Needed?

MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 1: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings dribbles the ball during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on January 1, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

While they battled admirably at different points, the Kings fumbled their first game of the new year, 108-118 to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Sacramento squeaked out a win here in November, but they could not repeat that success. Memphis absolutely dominated in paint points (64-44), points off turnovers (24-7), and most crushingly for the Kings, offensive rebounds (21-14).

Ja Morant scored 35 points with 8 rebounds and 5 assists, getting to the line 10 times. But Steven Adams was the ultimate difference maker and the primary reason for his team’s win as he finished with 11 points and 23 rebounds, including a back-breaking 13 on the offensive end. And despite missing four players, such as sharpshooter Desmond Bane, four additional Grizzlies finished in double figure scoring, one of them being Tyus Jones’ 18 off the bench.

On the other side, the Kings shot 40.6% as a team with no player reaching the 20-point threshold. Domantas Sabonis—the only King to shoot over 50% in this contest—put up 18 points and 14 boards, De’Aaron Fox scored 19 with 6 assists, Harrison Barnes scored 16, Malik Monk had 18 off the bench, and Kevin Huerter put in 14 with 5 assists.

Despite some exciting stretches of play and a feeling of dogged competitiveness, the Kings folded in the fourth as the Grizzlies closed out the game with good clock management and plenty of offensive rebounds. 

Game summary

Sacramento’s energy, hustle, and pace was good to start, but they did miss some looks in the paint and some second chance opportunities. As the uptempo play continued, shots started falling, especially off of defensive stops, establishing an early lead. But Memphis responded with a 13-3 run with the help of quick offense as well as some sloppy and undisciplined moments for the Kings. After exiting with two early personal fouls, Sabonis’ return to the floor—and some more Grizzlies turnovers (6 in the period)—helped even the momentum slightly. Though, they still trailed by one as they missed their last ten field goal attempts and only shot 4 free throws compared to Memphis’ 14.

Starting the second quarter, the Grizzlies scored 7 unanswered as Sac kept missing. Monk ended the missed field goal streak with a dunk and the Kings began a 14-3 run with competitive zeal. Reversing the momentum, a couple of live-ball turnovers occurred leading to back-to-back Tyus Jones three’s. After a timeout, Sacramento regained a rhythm, keeping with it and continuing to battle. Fox scored 7 points in the closing six minutes of the half, making the score 58-59 at half.

Out of halftime, the Kings hit 3 of their first 4 looks from deep, two from Barnes and one from Huerter, forcing a quick Taylor Jenkins timeout. From there it was an intense back and forth as the building got louder and louder as the battle intensity teemed. Like the first, the Kings had a field goal drought ensue after a Keegan Murray three; the team missed nine straight as Memphis regained the lead, which was made feasible as the Grizzlies scored 26 of their 32 third quarter points in the paint. Once more, Monk ended that cold streak with a three and the bench captain hit another one from beyond the arc to cut the deficit down to 4 going into the fourth.

A pair of Monk turnovers and some big three’s from Jaren Jackson and Jones expanded Memphis’ lead to start the final quarter. For a good period of time, as has been a theme of the night, the Kings struggled to get the ball in the basket while Steven Adams was a boogey man on the glass. With less than four minutes remaining, Sacramento upped the pressure on defense while Fox pushed for the quickest offense possible, helping to form a 7-0 run. But it proved too late as Adams’ presence on the offensive glass put the nail in the coffin as he grabbed 6 in the fourth. 

“A lot of the things we talked about with this team going into the game we didn’t handle well,” coach Mike Brown laid out after the loss, noting his team’s habit of failing to go for “singles,” the menacing Steven Adams, and the pick-and-roll defense to name a few. 

Should rotations—as they pertain to Fox—be altered?

Even with this loss, the Kings are still a winning team that’s generating organizational progress not felt in over a decade and a half—in other words, the sky isn’t falling—but could a small shift in rotational minutes be warranted?

Some have made that point, and it provokes an interesting conversation.

Whether or not a straight rotational swap between Domas and Fox is the exact answer is not clear, but the general idea holds a lot of merit.

As one user perceptively replied, the point guard “needs more time to get in a rhythm” compared to the big man.

On the season, De’Aaron Fox averages 4.5 points in the first quarter per game, his lowest scoring total of the four periods. His second lowest is in the third at 5.9 per quarter. Meanwhile, both his second and fourth period scoring totals equal or exceed 6.5 points.

The contrast is only starker when looking at his last 15 games. In that stretch, he’s averaging just 3.0 first quarter points and 4.9 in the third. And in the second and fourth periods, he’s averaging 7.0 and 7.7 points respectively.

As such, it does indeed appear that it takes a fairly lengthy period of time for Fox to get it going.

Sac’s point guard finished with just 19 points while his counterpart on the Grizzlies dropped 35, and the distribution of his minutes may have been a reason why as he—and, really, the team as whole—struggled to maintain any kind of a consistent roll.

Fox left the first quarter at his typical juncture, and prior to his return, the Kings missed five straight field goals. With Fox in there for the final two or three minutes, they missed five more. Then Fox and the Kings started the second period with five more misses as they found themselves down 8 points.

When Fox left the second quarter for two minutes of rest, he’d yet to establish a rhythm and had just 3 points in the game. Back out there, he closed the final seven minutes with 7 points to help his team trail by a single point at halftime.

Starting the third quarter, Fox had 3 assists and a successful trip to the free throw line as Sacramento found themselves up 3 points when Fox went to rest. With him on the bench for the next three and a half minutes, his team scored 0 points to Memphis’ 7 as the lead switched sides once more. In the final two or three minutes of the period, Fox had 0 points with 0 field goal attempts.

The fourth quarter featured a bit more of a flow for Fox, but it may have been too late. In the period’s first four minutes, Fox hit one three and had an assist before going to rest. He returned two minutes later and scored 4 more points, breaking even with the Grizzlies in his final stint on the floor, but Memphis had already established a 12-point lead by the time the point guard returned. 

Would a different distribution of minutes in the rotation—particularly pertains to the point guard—help De’Aaron Fox establish a rhythm earlier so that his high-level stretches can be sustained for longer?

It feels like it after this loss, and it may be amplified by the fact that this was yet another game that appears to be considerably dampening Fox’s all-star argument.

What do you think?

Not felt inside

To start, Sabonis got two early fouls on a pair of Morant drives in the first quarter. In November’s game, Domas had some excellent defensive moments against Morant, and while he bounced back later in the game for some vertical contests, the two early ones helped the Grizzlies immensely. 

Sabonis did a nice job of avoiding any further foul trouble, finishing with 4 personals, but there were considerable stretches of time where the desire to avoid fouls gave Steven Adams a leg up inside, both in terms of scoring and, more than anything, rebounding.

Outside of Domas, the size of the Grizzlies made it hard for the Kings on the glass. Various guys got involved on the glass as Huerter had 6 boards and Monk had 5, but Memphis out-rebounded Sacramento (57-47).

They also scored at will inside, mainly in the third period when 26 of their 32 points came in the paint. On the night the Grizzlies scored 64 paint points as Ja Morant got to a lot of comfortable spots inside.

Lately, preventing offensive rebounds, second chance points, and paint points has slowly become more of a struggle for this team.

In their first 18 games on the season, the Kings allowed just 8.5 offensive rebounds for 11.2 second chance points, which both ranked near the top. Their paint points allowed was over 50, though, at 53.0 per game.

All three categories over the last 17 games have only regressed. In that time, they are allowing 10.7 offensive boards for 13.0 second chance points while surrendering 56.9 paint points per game.

Reversing this trend is important.

Free throw disparity

This one piggy-back’s off the previous point.

In November’s matchup between these two teams, the Kings shot 27 attempts from the free throw line while the Grizzlies had 30. But it was Memphis’ struggles from the line helped propel Sacramento to a victory in a close game. On those 30 attempts, they made 63.3% of them.

On 24 attempts in Sunday night’s game, the Grizzlies posted another poor clip, shooting 66.7% from the line. The Kings shot 100%, which sounds like it should have lead to a win, but it came on just 15 attempts with only 5 in the second half and none in the fourth quarter.

Admittedly, the Grizzlies did get a lot of calls to go their way, but the gap in free throws was established early in the game and never really changed through the remaining course of it. 

On four occasions this season, including Sunday’s game, the Kings have attempted 18 or less free throws, and they’re winless in each of those games.

It’s more than fair to say they have to be more aggressive at getting those trips regardless of whether or not calls go their way. Granted this one felt like the Grizzlies got plenty more benefits of the doubt, but the overall aggression seemed to wane. The Kings had 10 free throw attempts and 30 paint points at halftime, but the free throw numbers were half that in the second as they managed a mere 14 paint points.

Though it was partially an officiating matter and though Memphis defends the paint very well, the reality is the Kings have to be able to control what they can control.

Credit to the bench, namely Lyles

Silver lining time.

Three bench players performed pretty well.

Malik Monk had the type of game most have grown accustomed to seeing from him. The Sixth Man of the Year candidate scored 18 on 7 of 17 from the field and 3 of 8 from deep, adding 5 rebounds—2 of which were offensive—and 3 assists. While he did have 4 turnovers, it was Monk that ended both extended stretches of field goal-less basketball, and some his buckets were significant shots in the arm.

Richaun Holmes also had another positive game as the backup center. Responsible for the majority of optimism around Holmes’ recent play has not only been his renewed energy, but also his defense as of late. He featured several such moments on the defensive end in this loss.

The lack of defensive execution—mainly in the fundamentals department as he fouled with his hands a lot—was a problem for Holmes earlier this season, which was a big reason why he fell out of the rotation. Now, he looks like a completely different player in that regard.

Here and here, Holmes did a great job of going straight up, using verticality—as opposed to flailing arms—to disrupt shots. In addition to those satisfactory contests, he used the same fundamentals to get a pair of blocks, one on Morant and the other on a spinning Xavier Tillman that looked a little more like a strip. Overall, it was a plus-performance for him.

But perhaps most impressive was Trey Lyles. After losing his rotational spot when he succumbed to an illness in late November, Lyles has put himself right back into the play for valuable minutes on a nightly basis. His stat line of 7 points on 2 of 7 from the field and 1 of 5 from deep does not tell the wholes story, though his 2 offensive rebounds begins to.

The word to describe Lyles’ night is hustle, which is probably the word to use for most of his impactful performances and his game as a whole. 

It can be illustrated with the last minute of the first period. In that time, Lyles grabbed an offensive rebound and earned a trip to the line where he hit both free throws. And then on the other end, he stepped up for quite the swat on Dillon Brooks.

And into the second quarter, he was a significant factor in Sacramento’s 12-0 run. Though the call didn’t go his way, it appeared he’d drawn a charge. No matter, though, because the power forward went on to play some great defense against Jaren Jackson Jr. that lead to a layup in transition that he earned by busting his tail up the floor. Additionally, he helped secure an additional stop by preventing an Adams offensive board—a rare occurrence for the Kings—while also hitting the three-pointer that made it a 12-0 run.

In spite of the loss, it’s clear that Monk is continuing his case for the SMOY, Holmes is looking more and more like a useful backup 5, and Trey Lyles keeps playing himself into nightly minutes.

Going forward

After a loss to begin the new year, the Kings gear up for their first back-to-back of 2023 starting Tuesday night.

They’ll head to Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz—a team they beat Friday night back at home—before flying west to Sacramento for the second game against the visiting Hawks.

After losing at The Golden 1 Center, Utah lost their fourth straight game to the Heat at home on New Years’ Eve, sending their record below .500 for the first time this season. 

Saturday’s loss was rough for Will Hardy’s squad. They’d tied the game after Lauri Markkanen was fouled on a three-point attempt and hit all his free throws, but with six seconds remaining, Tyler Herro hit a buzzer beating three-pointer, something that happened to the Kings in October.

When they play Sacramento, Utah will be coming off a couple days of rest.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
5 months ago

57 rebounds, damn…some of the guys need to help Domas out. Adams had 23 boards, 6 offensive in the 4th alone..that’s wild to think about. Sabonis struggled a bit more than usual to win the board battle with him, probably because of the limited use of his right hand. You can’t really fight and push against one of the toughest, strongest guys in the league as well when you’re hindered like that.


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