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Defense on the Upswing, Depth on Full Display, Kings Five Above .500

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 11: Domantas Sabonis #10 and De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings react after Trey Lyles #41 made a three-point basket against the Houston Rockets in the second half at Golden 1 Center on January 11, 2023 in Sacramento, California. 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. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

After an offense-heavy first half, the Kings played excellent defense in the second to come out with the 139-114 win and the 3-2 record on their 5-game home stand.

Sacramento held Houston to 48 points in the second half. Off that defense, they were able to muster 21 fast break points.

Jalen Green had 27 for Houston, but he had just 2 in the second half. Third overall pick Jabari Smith Jr. managed 18 in the second half, though, and finished with 27 points and 8 rebounds. And Alperen Sengun posted 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, but other guys struggled, including Kenyon Martin Jr., who shot well on Wednesday.

In addition to Sac’s defense, their offense was great, too. The Kings assisted 34 of 47 made field goals (.723 assist%), shot over 54% from the field, and hit half of their 40 three-point attempts.

Domantas Sabonis got his fourth triple-double of the season with 19 points, 15 rebounds, and a career-high 16 assists. Harrison Barnes had another hot night, scoring 27 on 5 of 8 from deep with 7 boards and 3 assists. A steady impact, De’Aaron Fox put up 24 points with 5 rebounds and 5 assists. Terence Davis had the offense going, dropping 22 with 6 rebounds. And off the bench, Malik Monk scored 15 and Trey Lyles put up 13 with 5 boards.

After beginning the home stand 0-2, the Kings did what they had to do in the final three to come out with a winning stretch. And on the topic of the number five, Sacramento is finally 5 games above the .500 mark for the first time since 2006.

Game summary

It was all offense in the first. De’Aaron Fox was off to a hot start, allowing for an early lead as the offense pushed it. Sacramento was producing a lot in the paint and getting second chance opportunities early, but Houston was getting inside, too (14 paint points), and making trips to the line (13), getting second opportunities in their own right. Even as they kept up near the rim and got a lead, Malik Monk hit three straight three’s to give his team a 36-32 lead after one.

Trey Lyles and Malik Monk hit some shots early in the second, but Houston was able to go on a 13-2 run that got rolling off of three straight Kings turnovers, two of which from Fox. But the lead, as it had, was prone to switch sides; Sacramento managed a 21-6 run of their own with the help of defense, rebounding, and pace. They also turned the table on the free throw differential, getting to the line 12 times in the second compared to the Rockets’ single trip. Jalen Green, however, was keeping his team in it—just watch this shot—scoring 25 points in the first half to keep Sac’s lead at 60-66.

Tying the game, the Rockets began the second half on a bit of a run, which was succeeded by a Mike Brown timeout after he sought to make a correction after a Terence Davis mishap. The Kings then went on a tear, utilizing good defense both in the half court and full court, and subsequently finding the offensive production arriving in bunches. They scored 12 points in the third off of 5 Houston turnovers, and it went through to the end of the quarter. Sacramento had a 20-point lead after three.

The Kings had that rhythm early in the fourth, but a ten-minute delay ensued after Malik Monk and Garrison Matthews got into it a little, which resulted in both of their ejections as well as the expulsion of Chimezie Metu and Tari Eason for instigation. After, it was clunky, but Sac recovered, getting back to producing stops in order to find offense in stride. And that was pretty much it.

Defensive adjustments paid off

At half time, the Rockets had 66 points on 51.1% shooting and only 5 committed turnovers (with Sacramento managing just 5 points off of them). What’s more, Jalen Green had absolutely lit it up for 25 points on 9 of 15 from the field and 5 of 6 from deep.

Houston managed some inside scores and opportunities with some subpar defense from the Kings down low. Early into the game, Terence Davis was caught in the air, fouling a shooter. Later in the first, Chimezie Metu—who was notably iffy on defense at a couple of points—mistimed his contest. And on pick-and-roll defense, Metu got clunky, knocking into his teammate and ending up nowhere to be found on the layup contest despite crashing. 

And—not to pick on the guy or anything—there was a moment early in the second period where Metu showed sharp activity, but ultimately failed to get in the right positioning, which resulted in an awkward contest that ended up as a foul (though it was assigned to Okpala).

The Rockets also managed to get some fast break scores on lackluster transition defense. Making matters wors, they had 11 first half second chance points, taking advantage of Sacramento’s occasional first half rebounding mishaps. Here, Metu mistimed a contest, and having put himself in the air and late, he was not able to grab the miss as it skipped off the rim, allowing another chance to the opponent. And here, Keegan Murray was unable to establish a strong enough box out against fellow rookie Tari Eason, who had a put back.

The second half brought a palpable shift, though. The Kings began getting stops, holding the Rockets 48 second half points on 43.2% from the field. They got the Rockets to commit 10 turnovers in the half, adding 17 points off of those. And perhaps most critical to the second half shift, they held Jalen Green to 2 points as the second-year talent went 1 of 6 and 0 of 3 from three once the attention was centered on him.

Early in the third quarter, Mike Brown called an early timeout as he sought to make a correction after he felt Terence Davis did not fight through a screen adequately, which allowed a layup.

From there on out, the defense was far more of a pleasant sight.

It kind of began with Fox—as it so often does—when the star point guard came up with a great steal as the pressure aimed at Green took grasp. From there, the Kings forced stops, keeping the ball out of the paint fairly well. The transition defense was better as seen when Sabonis—who earned the DPOG chain–hustled for a beautiful block after missing a three from the top of the perimeter (no clip available). And Terence Davis was only on an upward trend defensively.

As one can imagine, Davion Mitchell joined the defensive party, putting on a clinic late in the third quarter. In the final five minutes of the period, his ball pressure forced a turnover, he had a strip/block in one-on-one defense, and blocked a step back three attempt.

In the fourth, the Kings either kept Houston on the perimeter or displayed some excellent near-the-rim contests as Domas did here. Lending Sabonis a hand, guys were converging perfectly, too.

And Trey Lyles capped it off with some nice moments, again proving he’s one of the most impactful defenders on this team. He hauled both cheeks to hustle in transition to force a turnover and forced another turnover in the half court playing down low near the baseline. And in mop up time, he posted a block.

Of course, nobody should want to get too high on the Kings playing better defense over their last three, particularly in this most recent game. Respect is always doled out to any NBA team as it should be, but now these last three are in the rearview, remember that Orlando and Houston are not the most dangerous offenses. Plus, they played the Rockets twice in a row, that kind of progression on that end from one game to the next—especially against a 10-win team—is expected.

Still, they deserve lots of credit. They bounced back, and that kind of work and execution apparently has them on the upswing. It’s just a matter of keeping it going.

“Our second half, in my opinion, is a testament of who we can be,” Mike Brown evaluated postgame. “We are capable of defending and defending at a high level. I don’t care who’s in front of us. We just have to get consistent with it on a night-in, night-out basis. We have to want to do it, and that was evident in the second half.”

The three-ball is red hot

Similar to the defense, the three-point shooting is really getting going. It’s just been going on for a bit longer. 

After going 20 for 40 from deep Friday night, the Kings are now 146 for 327 for 44.6% over their last nine games. More specifically, over the last five, they’ve hit 86 of 191 for a 45% clip.

Malik Monk kind of initiated the party, getting the confetti to fall with three straight three-pointers pretty early into the game. He made it 4 of 5 from that range. It was an encouraging sign for Monk, who was shooting 22.4% from deep over his previous twelve appearances.

With him, Harrison Barnes had a 5 of 8 night from three-land. The three-point shot had been the missing link to his season as he shot just 30% from opening night through December. Since the flip of the calendar to 2023, Barnes has it going, shooting 47.6% from beyond the arc in seven games this month.

Fox had his second game in a row shooting the three well at 3 of 5. He got off to a great start this season, shooting 38.9% in the first 19 games, but from the start of December through Monday night’s win, Fox had been shooting 25.3%. Perhaps he’s trending upwards again in that department.

Having spotty minutes lately, over his last 8 games prior to Friday, Terence Davis had made just 4 of 29 attempts (15%) from deep. With a second start in a row due to the absence of Kevin Huerter, TD went 3 for 7.

Joining the party, Davion Mitchell went 1 for 2, Trey Lyles went 1 for 3, and Keegan Murray hit one on 5 attempts. Even Matthew Dellavedova—who broke the franchise record for three’s in a single game back on Monday—and Richaun Holmes hit a pair in garbage time.

And Kevin Huerter hasn’t even played these last two games. He, too, is on fire, shooting 44.2% over his last twelve appearances.

The Kings offense is already dangerous; this kind of outside shooting should strike fear in opponents’ eyes. 

Kings depth on full display

In simple terms, the Kings’ depth made itself known.

There have been various games here and there where the bench was less than impressive. Of course, everyone knows how disappointing Richaun Holmes has been.

But the depth—which everyone knew lurked—was really on full display.

Of course, Davion Mitchell brings his game-changing defense, Trey Lyles continues playing like one of the better two-way players in reserve, and Malik Monk looked like he was in the form of the Sixth Man of the Year candidate most have grown accustomed to seeing. Hell, even KZ Okpala contributed 11 minutes in this win as his place inside the rotation grows more and more frequent.

Most of all, though, it’s a shot in the arm to have Terence Davis. A surplus commodity at an already-stacked positional grouping, Davis displayed his value and how he can do an adequate job of coming close to providing the same impact as Huerter on both ends. 

He’s obviously not as good as the red headed one, but as long as Davis is on the team, the perimeter depth seems to imitate a banker’s pocket. 

Mike Brown showed some more tough love, saying Davis had a great second half after he “drove” Brown “crazy in the first half.”

“I love him, but he drove me crazy in the first half like a couple of other players,” Brown said. “But his second half was phenomenal on both ends of the floor.”

And throw Dellavedova in the mix, and there is an unshakeable foundation of talent.

A note on the backup 5 (as readers have come to expect)

As noted, Chimezie Metu was not great defensively in under 7 minutes of play. Also, he did not score any points and grabbed a single rebound. Of course, his ejection early in the fourth limited his opportunity to make a better impact, but the question of him soundly holding down his role remains immensely uncertain. 

After all, the length of the delay in the fourth period to decide who would be assessed technicals and such did a better job of providing Sabonis relief than Metu did.

It’s safe to say the Kings are—and have been—searching for an outside solution to that role.

Backing that notion up is the confirming report of another safe assumption: that Holmes is being shopped.

Fans are probably already doing so, but keep a keen eye on this situation since the February 9 trade deadline is beginning to grow nigh.

Going forward

After beating the team with the worst record in the Western Conference twice in a row, the Kings will be tasked with another similar test.

Sunday, they’ll play in San Antonio. The Spurs are 13-30 on the season after getting blown out by the visiting Warriors on Friday night, and they sit just above Houston down in the depths of the conference standings. 

Despite having the worst defense in the league, it’s still an NBA team, thus it’s a challenge worth taking seriously. Young as they are, they are notably a Gregg Popovich-lead squad. 

Sacramento is on a little roll here. Let’s see if they can keep it up and make it five losses in a row for the Spurs.

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