It was a close one for three quarters and the Rockets actually had the lead going into the fourth, but the Sacramento Kings tied it together in the end to take care of business at home in the first of two against this visiting Houston team.
It was not a consistent performance as the level of play ebbed and flowed, but it’s notable that Sacramento held their opponents to 48 paint points, got to the line 31 times, and sunk 19 of 48 from beyond the arc.
Several Rocket players had it going. Jalen Green led all scorers with 26 points, Kenyon Martin Jr. scored 21, and Eric Gordon had 19. The young Alperen Sengun had a triple-double with 10 of each in points, rebounds, and assists. And Garrison Matthews went 4 of 6 from three for 12 points off the bench.
For the victorious Kings, six players were in double figure scoring. Domanatas Sabonis not only led the team, he reached his 18th consecutive double-double, scoring 25 points with 14 rebounds, and 9 assists. De’Aaron Fox neared a double-double with 24 points and 9 assists and led the fourth quarter effort. Harrison Barnes and Keegan Murray both scored 16 each and together combined for 7 made three’s. But it was Trey Lyles’ 20 points and 7 rebounds off the bench that really popped, especially late in the game.
Not only did they take care of business as they should, but now Sacramento sits fourth in the Western Conference.
The flow of the game was choppy at first. Sacramento could dictate it to their advantage in so far as they were able to produce defensive stops. The Kings seemed to get the rhythm on their side as they strung together eight consecutive stops, but they could not sink their looks, shooting 38.5% in the first period. Without being able to carve out much of a lead—posting just 4 assists—Houston then got three straight dunks on the other end against them, making it close. Sac ended the first with a 31-27 lead.
The defense at the start of the second for the Kings wasn’t great as Houston scored on four of their first five possessions with two and-one’s. After a couple of stops were achieved, the Kings were able to move the ball and begin forming more of a lead, embarking on a 10-2 run to get it to double digits. But again, Sacramento afforded Houston some life, particularly from beyond the arc, hitting 4 in the final three or some minutes of the second and trailing by 5 points at the half.
Again, the Kings were unable to stretch out the lead as the Rockets got off to a hot start in the third, hitting 8 of their first 12 shots, which included four three-pointers. Sabonis, however, had a hell of a scoring quarter, putting up 12 in the third after already getting that 18th double-double in a row in the first half. But Houston continued hitting their shots, going 6 for 9 from three in the third and gaining a lead at the end of it by one while the Kings managed just 4 assists in the period.
Fox assumed his typical demeanor as the fourth period began with a quick score and a great feed in the first two minutes. With Fox (9 fourth quarter points with 6 assists) came defense down the stretch and, as a nice added benefit, a red-hot Trey Lyles who went a perfect 5 of 5 from the field with three three’s. And with all those factors and more on a roll, Sacramento scored 41 in the fourth and cruised to victory in the final nine or ten minutes after treading water for most of the game.
Trey Lyles is playing like the best bench guy right now
Trey Lyles had a season-high 20 points, earning his namesake with three trey’s in this game. Furthermore on that latter point, Lyles has hit 8 of his 12 attempts from deep over the last three contests.
On the season as a whole, Lyles may be the third most impressive bench player behind Malik Monk, who is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Davion Mitchell, who consistently brings a baseline of high intense defensive presence.
But lately, it’s fair to say Lyles has been playing like the best bench player on this Kings team.
That was how it looked on Wednesday night against the Rockets when he put up 15 fourth quarter points.
“We ran him a long time, too,” coach Mike Brown said proudly of his role player. “And he plays so hard when he’s out there, but we ran him a long time and it didn’t even look like he missed a beat in terms of his wind, so big, big, big game.”
As noted, he was hitting his three’s, but he also had some great finishes near the rim, earned trips to the line—going 5 of 6 from the charity stripe—and cleaned up at one point on the offensive glass.
But as any observer can tell by looking at the hardware hanging from his neck during his postgame press conference, Lyles again brought it on the defensive end to earn those Defensive Player of the Game honors.
Lyles continued putting himself in the right defensive spot—whether down low or on the perimeter; hell, even blocking a three-point attempt—provided heads up help, and also put in his work to secure stops.
Sound and reliable, this guy again shows he was a great pickup last year; really, he’s the perfect side dish alongside the main dish of Domas Sabonis. With a +15, bested only by Harrison Barnes’ +17, does a pretty adequate job of conveying that.
Defense was spotty, but came together in the end
Overall, the defense looks like it’s continuing to improve.
In this game, it started off pretty well—even as the Kings failed to use those stops to construct an early lead—but veered off in the middle periods. In the end, though, Sacramento had it all come together, holding the Rockets to 20 fourth quarter points to win the game.
Early in the game, Keegan Murray was not in the best positioning and thus came in to help late, committing a foul, there was a failure to box out, and allowed some dunks. But overall, they pieced together some nice stops midway through the first; in that time, the Kings’ rotations looked sharp, guys (in this case, Barnes) stayed vertical, and their activity forced some turnovers.
In those middle periods, it got a little more junky. The second quarter began pretty well before it went down hill. The Kings had a 12-point lead with just under five minutes left in the half having given up just 11 points in the first seven minutes, but then the Rockets went blow for blow with Sacramento, ending those final minutes on a 23-21 run. To be fair to Mike Brown’s guys, the Rockets hit some tough shots; and some guys played good defense late in the period, like Sabonis here. But Houston was still allowed to hit 7 of 10 inside the paint.
The third quarter was where things looked a little more unsteady as Houston was able to gain a lead. Similar to the previous quarter, the Kings started fairly well on defense. Fox had a steal, Davion Mitchell drew an offensive foul, and Malik Monk had an effective moment as the low man. But the opponent had another 30-plus point quarter as the Kings’ rebounding looked shoddy and Houston was able to get in the paint to produce open outside looks.
Going into the fourth it was an up-and-down game for the defense. It was fair to say it still looked better than the previous two or three weeks, but it was also unmistakably keeping the Rockets in the game.
But the Kings bore down in the fourth. They held the Rockets to just 20 points on 7 of 20 shooting. The team came together to spawn defensive stops; that was the case with Sabonis and Barnes here. Sacramento was able to force their opponent into low percentage shots. And to top it off, De’Aaron Fox drew a charge.
“Our guys stepped up in the fourth quarter on the defensive end,” Mike Brown assessed after the win, crediting that since he felt the team did not have its best offensive performance.
In short, there are two takeaways. The defense is coming back along to some degree that is, at the very least, discernible. And the next one is that this team still has that trait—somewhere within them—to be present and finish strong on that end.
KZ Okpala has earned it all
In honor of the specific impact KZ Okpala can and has been providing, this one will be concise.
Over the last several weeks, Okpala has earned time in the rotation. Obviously, he’s an absolute commodity on the defensive end. In this game, he showed that. He secured stops with tough rebounding, provided shot contests in transition (even if the opponent got it to fall, Okpala made it difficult), and offered great defense down low, going vertical with a good grasp of the fundamentals.
And with everything he adds on that end, all he has to do is keep the defense honest regarding wide open looks. He continued doing that, hitting a three in this one. It was his second game in a row with a three, and while the attempts go up rarely, Okpala has hit 3 of his last 6 attempts. Plus, his presence on the floor seems far more aware regarding spacing and movement.
Chikezie Okpala has been a joy to watch lately.
Not the best game from Chimezie Metu
Metu’s second game with the backup center role in his lap was not the best performance.
Not long after relieving Sabonis late in the first quarter, Metu came in and registered an offensive board though he could neither contain it nor put it back.
Remaining on the rocky side of things before veering to the positive side, he did not do a great job of establishing a deeper defensive position, getting beat by a driving Eric Gordon. Then he committed a shooting foul, which, to his credit, prevented an easy dunk.
Sabonis played the entirety of the third quarter and Metu returned at the start of the fourth. There, Fox found him for an uncontested alley-oop, but then he fouled a jump shooter and committed a moving screen a few minutes later.
He did play some nice defense here, staying vertical and allowing Lyles to come help, but overall this was not an impressive performance for Chimezie Metu after he looked really good on Monday night.
A true backup center has to be a target for this team as the trade deadline approaches.
A note on Terence Davis
The depth of the Kings is personified in Terence Davis. As was the case over the last couple of weeks, in spite of his undeniable offensive talent, he finds himself on the outside looking in regarding rotational minutes. But to preserve the role of Malik Monk as the de facto sixth man, Davis is able to be slated right into the starting lineup as he did in November with Keegan Murray out and again in December with Kevin Huerter out.
With Huerter out again, Davis got another opportunity.
It was nothing special as he scored 6 points on 2 of 7 shooting, all from three-point range with 6 boards and 2 assists in just under 23 minutes.
Still, he has immense value as the fill-in guy. He may not have lit it up the way he’s ideally capable of, but he always brings that hustle-ridden style of play that is characteristic of an undrafted free agent that was able to earn a spot in the NBA. It was apparent on this great effort guarding down low along the baseline to end up with a block.
But better yet, as essentially a stand in for Huerter, he’s perfect.
One of the most pleasing things to watch Huerter do this season is see him engage with Sabonis in their two-man game; several times in each game it generates production, often early.
Early in this game, the Davis-Domas two-man game had some moments. First, as Domas rolled alongside Davis, TD hit him with a pass that earned the big man a trip to the line. Then shortly after that, a similar play drew a non-shooting foul. And in the second quarter, a dribble handoff excavated some space for Davis to hit a three.
Davis may not be the best defender on the team—he’s not at all bad, really—and his offense is not as surefire as it needs to be to earn him a nightly rotational spot, but he certainly adds a valuable level of depth.
Plus, with the trade deadline approaching, he’s continuously showing he’s more than capable of holding down a rotational spot elsewhere should he be involved in a deal.
Mike Brown holding his guys accountable, but with endearment
After the loss to the Lakers where the Kings allowed 136 points, 70 of which came in the paint, Mike Brown was understandably frustrated.
Amid that disappointment, he directly called out the fact that his rookie had 0 rebounds on the night.
Two games removed, Brown can now say he’s happy with the rookie in regards to that aspect of the game.
“I will say this,” the head coach began, removing his spectacles to examine the box score in front of him. “I was looking when I got the box score, I’m continuing to look. I take my glasses off put them back on — I put my readers on, take them off — and I still see Keegan has 6 rebounds. That number hasn’t changed. So that’s good, but that’s exactly what he’s capable of doing at his size, his athleticism, his feel, the whole nine yards. He should get 5 to 6, at minimum, rebounds a game, so it was good to see him step up and get 6 rebounds. So I’m not going to ask him tomorrow how many rebounds he had because he’ll make some smart aleck remark.”
He held his guys accountable, and did so in an endearing manner.
The tiniest of peeks at PJ Dozier
Again, a true opportunity to assess Dozier hasn’t really come about.
After one day off in between, it will be these same Houston Rockets at The Golden 1 Center again. The Kings will look to handle their business a little better in this one by doing it from start to finish.
It’ll also be the final contest of the five-game home stand. As it stands, Sac’s 2-2, so they’ll definitely want to secure that 3-2 finish.