Mike Brown: Our Defensive ‘Urgency’ Needs to be Elevated

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 28: Domantas Sabonis #10 holds back De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings as he reacts to a foul call in the fourth quarter of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center on January 28, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves defeated the Kings 117-110. 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 David Berding/Getty Images)

Despite some nice efforts, the Kings were unable to tie things together, dropping the first of their seven-game roadtrip to the Timberwolves, 110-117.

Sacramento had 14 more free throw attempts, 9 less turnovers, and 13 more points off turnovers, but they simply allowed Minnesota to shoot far too well in this one. Compared to the Kings 9 of 33 (27.3%) from deep, the home team hit 17 of 37 (45.9%) from outside.

For the T-Wolves, it was D’Angelo Russell in one half and Anthony Edwards in the other. Russell scored 23 of his 25 points in the first half, going 7 of 7 from three while Edwards finished with a game-high 34 points along with 10 rebounds, hitting some tough looks down the stretch. Rudy Gobert scored 13 with 14 boards, Jaden McDaniels put up 15 points, and Naz Reid scored 14 off the bench.

De’Aaron Fox turned a slow start into a hot finish, putting up 29 points and 6 assists on the night. With him, Domantas Sabonis got back on the double-double train with 23 points and 10 boards. But really, a third guy never stepped up. Harrison Barnes scored 13, Kevin Huerter scored 11, and Keegan Murray put in 8 as the trio combined for just a 29.6% clip from the field. An exception was Malik Monk, who scored 13 off the bench, but the punch was missing on both ends. 

The Kings had chances to take this game as seen in the second and fourth quarters, but they gave the Timberwolves every opportunity to answer back.

Game summary (takeaways below)

The Kings began 2 of 12 from the field while the Timberwolves started noticeably hot start from three, getting off to a 5 of 6 start from deep with D’Angelo Russell going 4 of 4. Out of a timeout, Sacramento began to get to the free throw line, going 8 of 10 from the stripe while the offensive stability helped their defense to a degree. But Minnesota kept hitting three’s, finishing 7 of 13 in the first, and went on a 7-2 run late in the period to gain a 29-21 lead. 

Starting the second quarter, the Kings attacked inside and had three consecutive dunks and a Fox paint score, but the T-Wolves were able to add some fast break scores as Russell hit two more three’s. However, Sac was able to surge ahead as their defense hit a stride in the second quarter with the help of Davion Mitchell and Malik Monk. At one point they went on a 12-2 run to tie the game. In the final minutes, Minnesota played better and Russell dropped another (7 of 7 from three), but being +12 in free throw attempts and +6 in turnovers helped Sacramento find themselves with a 2-point lead at half.

Offensively, the Kings struggled to start the half while Anthony Edwards and the T-Wolves hit some tough shots, going on a 19-6 run in the third to take the lead and push it to 10 points. Minnesota was able to grab 4 offensive rebounds for 5 second chance points in the third, limited their turnovers, and continued shooting close to 50% from beyond the arc, counteracting any effort from the Kings to even the score. The T-Wolves lead 90-81 after three.

It looked slow to start the fourth, but the Kings were able to embark on a 8-2 run with the help of some stops, free throw trips, and Domas’ scores down low. Minnesota appeared prepared to continue responding and got into the bonus early, but De’Aaron Fox began to come alive after his offense was virtually nonexistent in the first three quarters. The Timberwolves managed a 9-4 run to reattain a double digit lead. Fox squeezed the deficit again, but Minnesota continued to make shots. Another effort made it 110-114 with just over thirty seconds left, but Anthony Edwards sunk a dagger

Relying on offense alone is “fool’s gold”

There were moments where the Kings looked like they were going to find a way to begin the road trip with a win, and there were moments where it looked like an insurmountable task. Sacramento had its surges and forced the issue, but they ultimately did not have as many answers as Minnesota.

But the essence of the loss is not that the Sacramento Kings needed to hit more shots. That would have helped, sure, but the answer is complimentary basketball, or allowing one end of the floor to open things up on the other end of the floor.

Even as the number-one scoring offense in the league, good defense is what makes the Kings an impossible task to handle on the offensive end. Tough and talented as they may be, this game showed why relying on offense alone is “unsustainable,” as Mike Brown said after the game.

“I’m not talking bad about our offense — because the offense, I like it — but that is fool’s gold if we think as a team, as an organization that we’re going to just beat teams by outscoring them,” coach Brown made clear after the loss. “It’s not going to happen, especially come playoff time.”

The offense had it’s up’s and down’s, and the fact Harrison Barnes (1 of 7), Kevin Huerter (4 of 12), and Trey Lyles (0 of 2) did not have the most productive scoring nights played a huge part in that, especially as they were just failing to convert solid looks. Despite that, the attention was never really given to the other end, which continued to hurt the offense.

“Right now, we’re not getting it done defensively, so, to me, that side of the ball is impacting us more than our offense because, again, I feel like we had great looks, we took care of the ball, we got to the free throw line, we just didn’t make shots tonight, but on those nights you can’t give up 53-percent from the floor and 12 of 16 threes from their two best players and think that you’re gonna win the game on the road,” he added.

It takes a while to be that defensively adept team that can realistically call themselves contenders, and while they’ve shown glimpses at times and while Mike Brown continues to try and drill it into his guys’ brains, the lack of defense—the lack of complimentary basketball—hurts them, even on nights where they were not completely cold offensively. 

As coach Brown said, 110 points on 45.1% shooting is “decent,” but if they could have paired that kind of shooting performance with better all-around defense, this game predictably looks a lot different.

To him, the “urgency” on the defensive end, to play complimentary basketball needs to be elevated.

Fox’s 21-point fourth quarter

Sacramento’s final effort to try and come out victorious was De’Aaron Fox’s fourth quarter effort, where he went 8 of 13 for 21 points, forcing the Timberwolves to have to respond.

Minnesota—as has been noted redundantly in this piece—more than did that on multiple occasions, yet Fox nevertheless looked phenomenal in the final period of play.

Interestingly enough, after a rough first three periods that seemed to paint the point guard as tired, Fox began the fourth with three personal fouls that amounted to his fifth foul. He went to the bench for a minute of rest and afterward, played a valiant stretch of basketball. 

In the fourth, Fox was 7 of 9 in the paint, being aggressive by pushing the ball and getting to the line (4 of 6 from the charity stripe in the fourth). Here, he looked like he was in another zone, pushing it with the speed of light to put down a big dunk. Other than Sabonis’ 3 made field goals, Fox scored all of them in the fourth for the Kings.

Ultimately, Sac’s defense and Minnesota’s continuous ability to respond nullified Fox’s effort, but it was quite the sight given the fact that such a fourth quarter seemed unthinkable after going 2 of 11 in the first three quarters (0 of 5 in the third period).

Should the Kings prioritize rest?

Based on the two topics above, the question should be asked: Do the Kings need to make additional rest a bigger priority?

If De’Aaron Fox didn’t have the fourth quarter he had, fatigue would have been the largest assumption as to why he and much of the team looked a little off in this game. Kayte Christensen was talking about it on the broadcast and noted that there may be a need to give him a game off early in this roadtrip so as to string together a couple of days off to recuperate here as the 50th game mark approaches.

Even with Fox’s fourth quarter, Christensen is probably correct.

He was dealing with a foot bruise, but the last time Sacramento was on one of these arduous roadtrips, a game off for Fox helped right the ship for him and the team.

But the question of rest applies to more than just Fox.

Though he made up for it with 11 trips to the free throw line, Harrison Barnes had his worst shooting game of the month. And over the last pair of contests, he’s just 2 of 8 from three. After a pretty hot stretch here in January, it’s probably imprudent to say he’s in a cold spell, but the matter of additional rest seems just as applicable to Barnes as anyone. 

Yes, this is a pretty young team, but others could probably use extra time as the season wears on. And since this team looks to be playoff bound—or at the very least on their way to some competition past game 82—the ability to provide rest could be a big factor.

Will those guys ask for rest time?

No, but doling it out to them may not be a bad idea. It really might be something to consider if nothing else, but when it comes to Fox—who plays with a lot of responsibility on both ends—and Barnes, it very well could be necessary.

Emphasizing depth on the wing, or lack thereof

KZ Okpala logged some minutes int the first quarter. While he looked to provide a helpful presence on defense, he looked like a weak spot on offense.

There have been a few times this season, particularly in late December and into this month, where Okpala did not look like an offensive liability. His understanding of spacing was better, he was hitting open three’s at a more consistent rate, and his overall defensive impact in turn helped allow for better offensive pushes.

However, it was hard to call him anything other than that in Saturday evening’s contest.

Of course, at just under four minutes logged, there wasn’t a ton to go off of, but in the span of about a minute, Okpala had a rough pair of moments offensively. First, he had a pretty good look from three in the corner come his way, but he hesitated, instead driving towards the rim for a less than pretty floater attempt. Not long after, another opening from the opposite corner arose and Okpala put it up—awkwardly in an attempt to draw a foul—and clunked it off the side of the back board.

After playing a game for the Stockton Kings the other night and going 0 of 2 from deep, he very well could not have been feeling his shot, hence the initial hesitation. But either way one chooses to look at it, whether you’re feeling it or not, that was simply a bad decision.

And regardless of the scenario, Okpala has to keep taking those and doing so with confidence, but while he looked prepared to do that going forth for a moment, he’s now seemed to have regressed. At this point, it almost looks as if he thinks of himself as a liability on that end.

Perhaps in the spirit of knowing one’s role that is not a bad thing, and moreover, as a defensive weapon capable of being called upon, that can be a useful trait for playing within oneself. However, when looking at the requisite depth at the wing, this direction move Okpala further away from potentially being that guy.

That ascendance would be a miracle of sorts, though. Everybody knows that, which is why an adequate backup to Barnes remains a pertinent issue. The backup center is one that ebbs and flows; it’s been inconsistently held down, but it’s had a better share of good moments. The other spot has essentially been a hole from the start of the season to the present.

Without discrediting any need or desire for a backup 5, a more reliable backup wing seems like an area in need of attention. Perhaps Deonte Burton–who the Kings are bringing up from Stockton with a 10-day after deciding not to give PJ Dozier a third–or maybe Okpala gets it together, but it’s looking more and more like the wing is in the running for area most in need of improvement as the deadline season takes hold. 

Okpala is a defensive asset, but it just seems he’s far from making the two-way impact necessary for being an effective nightly rotation guy.

Going forward

The Kings will stick around Minnesota to play these same Timberwolves on Monday night. Then they’ll have a chance to answer back and avoid an 0-2 start to a tough trip.

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Dan Smith
9 months ago

Kinda sucks we get Minny twice in a row when they’re on this 11-4 hot stretch, but what can ya do? Hopefully they look at the footage and make the proper adjustments, mainly contain Russell and Edwards more from the outside. The offense should start clicking again, just gotta make the open looks. Seemed like they had a decent amount of good ones last night, they just weren’t falling. Also had some bad bounces and ones roll out, but can’t do much about those. Appreciate the top notch Kings coverage Tony!