Can Fox Resurrect His All-Star Hopes? Tuesday’s Win was a Nice Start

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 3: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings dunks the ball against the Utah Jazzon January 3, 2023 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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 2023 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

Once more, the Kings topped the Jazz in a game that came down to the wire, winning 117-115. But this time it was on Utah’s home floor and it was De’Aaron Fox who secured the victory with a locked-in second half performance.

After getting their final win of 2022, Sacramento got their first win in 2023 against the same team. Not only was Fox the standout, but the team defense—though not perfect—looked much better despite some very sloppy moments. Nevertheless, some of the Kings best players stepped up to the challenge in a game where they shot 53.5% from the field.

All five starters scored 16 or more. Both Kevin Huerter—who got off to a hot start—and Keegan Murray scored 16. Harrison Barnes had a really nice game, scoring 19 points with 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. As is typical, Domantas Sabonis edged close to a triple-double with 21 points, 14 boards, and 8 assists. And Davion Mitchell deserves a nod for his defensive impact, which was the most palpable off the bench. But again, it was all De’Aaron Fox in locking up this win as the point guard dropped a game-high 37 points.

“Great players don’t get tired, great players make their teammates good,” Mike Brown said after the game in praise of his point guard. “And that’s what he did tonight. He came and won the game for us, that’s what great players do on the road. I take my hat off to him.”

Game summary

Picking up where both teams left off last Friday, the offense was on full display. Sacramento was getting to the line and producing great transition three-point makes off of stops, and from there, the Kings began to pull ahead by erupting for a 21-3 run on the back of excellent defense, pace, and execution from beyond the arc, which opened up the floor. It was not a storm from start to finish in the quarter, but the Jazz were remarkably cold, shooting 35.0% from the field. Sac led 35-23 after one. 

Utah began the second committing their sixth, seventh, and eighth turnovers, but Sacramento topped them with four in the first minutes of the period. Adding to the sloppiness, the Jazz were able to grab 5 offensive boards after having none in the first, benefitting from 6 second chance points as well as Sabonis’ rest time. Out of a timeout and with Domas back, the team looked better, recovering for a 60-51 lead at the half. But the Jazz were able to regain some feel as they earned 6 trips to the line to Sac’s single trip, eclipsed the 40% mark from the field, and scored 16 paint points in the second.

Out of the half, Sabonis was aggressive and Fox had a great block, but Utah was on the fortunate side of some sloppy play on the part of the Kings (Utah scored 12 second chance points and 12 points off of Sac’s 7 turnovers in the third) which paved the way for a Jazz run as they found 10 free throw attempts in the quarter, which slowed down the game considerably. As the stops came around for the Kings, so did advantageous stretches of play for them. But the defense was nowhere to be found for much of the period as Utah continued to match them, gaining their first lead since early in the first as the third quarter came to a close.

The third quarter set up for a tight close to this game and the final period delivered. Utah had continued their run from the third, making it a 14-4 run, but the Kings began to reverse the tide as Fox began to really get it going and as stops came back around. Add Sabonis to the mix, and all the better; ask Fox, Murray, and Huerter. Still, it was primarily Fox.

With two minutes remaining, the Kings had a 111-107 lead before Jordan Clarkson hit a floater. However, the Jazz had a complete mishap on defense, allowing a boisterous jam from De’Aaron Fox. With a side out of bounds, Clarkson drew an objectively bogus—and therefore savvy?—whistle which granted him a free throw that he hit plus the ball. Afterwards, the Kings forced a miss, but Kelly Olynyk came down with the rebound, allowing a Conley layup.

Winding the clock down, Fox got to his spot on the left elbow for a clutch shot, but Markkanen—like his last game against Miami—drew a foul on a three-point attempt and hit all three from the line, tying up the game with sixteen seconds left. But the common denominator struck again as Fox hit a deathly gear to get to the rim for a clutch make. With less than a second left, the Jazz inbounded the length of more than three-quarters of the court, allowing Markkanen a mid-range tip shot that, despite making, did not leave his hands in time, sealing Sac’s win.

What the doctor ordered: a complete second half for Fox

In Sunday’s loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis, De’Aaron Fox struggled to find a rhythm other than in the closing minutes of the first half and the end of the fourth when it was already too late.

The loss was understandably frustrating for Kings fans that want to see their team win and their point guard gain all-star recognition. Not only did Sac lose, but the game served as an illustration for the issue of Fox taking a bit of time to find a groove.

In that one, his inability to establish the requisite flow played a huge part in the loss and it beckoned the question—asked by fans and analysts this season—of whether a change was necessary or not for Fox’s minutes distribution, which has Fox coming off the floor about half way through the first quarter.

But just like that—with the speed the point guard treads at—Fox shushed that question.

Early on, though, it did feel like he was a non-factor. Fox had only three field goal attempts—including this doozie—in the first quarter and it took him until about the nine-minute mark in the second to make his first look from the floor. It was not the most flattering of starts.

In the close of the second quarter, after he had his roughly two minutes of rest, Fox returned, looking more aggressive as the needle found the groove for him. In the final five and a half minutes, the point guard scored 7 points on 3 of 4 from the field. But one was left to wonder whether there would be carryover or if his production would hit a stop-go snare that inhibits him.

Well, it did carry over. And better yet, it swelled like a mushroom cloud.

In the second half, he scored 27 points on 11 of 14 from the floor. In the fourth quarter alone, he dropped 22 on a near-perfect 9 of 10 from the field.

A locked-in De’Aaron Fox not only won this game and—for the moment—silenced the rotation question, but he’s also continuing a nice stretch of play since sitting out a couple of games on the Kings’ mid-December east coast trip.

Over the last 11 games, Fox is averaging 26.0 points on 50.5% shooting with 4.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists.

The foot bruise put a major dampener on his all-star case, which was initiated with the convincing hook of his first 5 games where he averaged 27.8 points, but this recent stretch is making it interesting again.

Fox was able to carryover his late-third quarter play into the whole of the second half. Can he carryover the level of play in this one to the next six weeks?

If he can, his all-star hopes may be resurrected.

“I don’t want to praise him too much,” coach Mike Brown said early into his postgame presser. “The reason being — I’m telling you, that’s what that dude’s capable of.”

“I’m telling you,” he continued, “that’s De’Aaron Fox. And it’s great that the league — not just people in the NBA, but the media, fans — they’re starting to recognize his greatness. And he’s just scratching the surface.”

The unsung nature of Barnes this season

Aside from Sacramento’s star duo, Harrison Barnes had the next best game. And as is the case with what he’s done all season, it has the tendency to fly under the radar.

Barnes continued making smart decisions usually in the form of taking the ball to the rim for a good look and/or a trip to the line in moments where the offensive flow stalls. But more than that, Barnes made an even larger difference.

Of course, he had his offensive moments. He was active, putting in the hustle, and hitting his shots (7 of 13 from the field, 3 of 7 from three.)

But he was also great defensively, looking heads up here on this weak side interception. Moreover, though, the way Barnes can affect the man he’s assigned to often makes a massive difference.

Such was the case in December against the Raptors when Pascal Siakam was held to 19 points on 36.8% shooting when he’d started the game well. In the first half, Toronto’s star scored 15 points on 5 of 11 from the field, but Barnes held him to 2 of 8 for 4 points in the second half, earning Defensive Player of the Game honors.

While it was not as eyebrow-raising, he had a similar effect on Lauri Markkanen. As alluded to, the Finn still managed a 28-point game, but Barnes disrupted his ability to score from the outside using his on-ball presence and his close outs.

Though Utah ended up with an offensive board, this was illustrated perfectly as Barnes successfully defended a Markkanen turnaround fadeaway jumper.

Plus, his on-ball defense drew two separate offensive fouls.

With a 19-point game, it was clear to anyone giving a cursory glance to the box score that Barnes was a difference maker, but really, whether he scores that much or not, the veteran has been an unsung hero for this team that leads the Pacific Division.

Holmes had his worst game of the last week

In his first stint on the floor Holmes did not look very great, especially compared to the last four or five games. 

Early in his time, he committed a shooting foul, which was honestly a good, aggressive contest that may have been a clean block, but he got tacked with an early one nonetheless. In the second period, he committed an offensive foul turnover and had an awkward moment (only partially visible at the end of the linked clip) where his sense of spacing was absent on a transition scenario, which seemed somewhat responsible for a Fox traveling violation. Plus, the Jazz were having their way on the glass, consuming offensive rebound after offensive rebound.

And he only offered three gameplay minutes of rest for Sabonis in the second half. In that short stretch his presence was negligible. The only thing worth noting is that it looked like Holmes got caught in no-man’s land that allowed a Utah alley-oop. It came off a pick-and-roll, and PNR defense is a point of emphasis for Mike Brown regarding his backup 5.

With a quick turnaround, Holmes will have a chance to get back on track. And expect him to, too. This was one game and the big man’s intent on reemerging as an impact player does not seem to have gone anywhere.

Still, it was easily his least productive game over the last week.

Not many points, but the bench brought defense…

Compared to the 26 bench points the Jazz put up, the Kings bench managed to score just 8, combining for 4 of 18 from the field.

Sure, the scoring was nowhere to be found, and they were not fundamentally sound regarding rebounds and turnovers, but a defensive presence was felt even if it wasn’t the best defensive game for the team.

Of course, it goes without saying, that Davion Mitchell brought it, but he did so again not long after having what many believe to be his best defensive game of his NBA career last Friday when the Jazz were in Sacramento. 

There was no drawn charge to highlight his off-ball progress, but he was a high-energy on-ball defender as he always is. Here, he was relentless against Nickeil Alexander-Walker, forcing a turnover. And here, his ceaseless pursuit of Alexander-Walker forced a miss.

Mitchell was his usual self, playing a major part in a lot of his team’s stops.

But it wasn’t Mitchell alone.

Though he fouled a three-point shooter early in his first appearance on the hardwood, KZ Okpala also offered valuable defense, finishing the game with just 2 steals on his stat line, but critical ones at that. 

Okpala really shined in the fourth quarter. There, he brought high-level ball pressure to the table. His sticky defense helped initiate team stops and force opponent turnovers.

And Trey Lyles continued his streak of impactful performances using his hustle and awareness. It wasn’t his best game as he scored just 2 points on 1 of 3 from the field, but he also had a terrific block in the second period and a heads up deflection from the weak side near the end of the third (no clip of it).

Malik Monk’s 2 points in 15 minutes of play and the bench’s single-digit scoring figure was made up for in part by the defensive intensity from the bench…

…Which beckons the question…

How great would it be if Davion Mitchell could at least offer more of a scoring punch.

Obviously, he brings it defensively every game and every minute, which constitutes a great deal of his responsibilities. Also, such defensive effort does not leave open much excess energy to expend on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, look at Malik Monk in this game. The de facto bench captain scored just 2 points on a wretched 1 of 7 from the field. He had 4 assists, which is great, but his scoring punch was not in the state of Utah, which provides a good portion of the explanation for how the Kings bench mustered just 8 points.

Funnily enough, it was Mitchell who scored the most off the bench (4 points) and the lone reserve to shoot over 50% from the field (going 2 of 3). What’s more, both of his scores were notable. 

His first bucket was simply beautiful. After a stop, the Kings pushed the ball up the floor, but Utah brought solid transition defense with them to thwart Monk, who’d slipped up the floor. With the numbers disadvantage, Monk passed it to Mitchell, who’d just passed half court. The second-year guard offered a nice hesitation as if he was pulling up for a three, but he hit the gas and rumbled to the rim for a smooth finish.

And his second came at a critical moment in the midst of Utah’s run late in the third when Mitchell pulled-up and sunk a midrange jumper. Nothing fancy, but it was timely since it came directly after the Kings had turned it over and Malik Beasley got a floater to fall for the and-one at the line.

Obviously, Mitchell is not the offensive player Monk is, but he has talent, especially the way he can get to the rim. Without throwing the game plan to the wind—which he wouldn’t do—Mitchell should be looking to make a bigger scoring impact in situations just like these.

Malik Monk is understandably going to have off-nights, and maybe Mitchell can add a second meaning to his slick nickname by being able to pick up Monk’s slack whenever he leaves it lying around.

Sacramento pulled out the win and Mitchell’s performance as it stands played a role in that, but it’s hard not to imagine if there is a higher offensive ceiling lying within that is waiting to be unleashed now, not later.

Going forward

After this win, the Kings hopped on a flight back home where the rain and the Atlanta Hawks await them.

It’ll be Sacramento’s first back-to-back of the calendar year, and this second one comes against the Hawks, as was the case with the back-to-back prior to Thanksgiving.

Atlanta is coming off of a tough-luck, double-overtime loss in San Francisco to Klay Thompson and the Warriors. They are 3-7 over their last 10 games and have now lost four in a row after the Golden State game.

Sacramento will have to take care of business. The second of a back-to-back is always tough, but the Kings are 11-3 against teams that sit below the .500 marker, as the Hawks do, and they will only benefit from the uplifting effect of The Golden 1 Center’s atmosphere.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
2 months ago

Let’s go out and handle business tonight boys, time to light-the-beam!!!