Fox and a Mojo Regained: Kings Bounce Back in Houston

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 06: De'Aaron Fox #5 high fives Trey Lyles #41 of the Sacramento Kings against the Houston Rockets during the first half at Toyota Center on February 06, 2023 in Houston, Texas. 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 Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

It’s amazing what the return of an all-star level talent will do for a team.

With De’Aaron Fox back after missing two contests due to the birth of his son, the Kings took the first of two in Houston, beating the Rockets 140-120.

Sacramento not only scored 140 points on terrific percentages and with characteristic pace, they committed just 10 turnovers (after committing 15 or more in the last two), reached 38 assists, and looked better engaged on defense.

Houston made things interesting early in the second half. Jalen Green finished with 27 points, Kenyon Martin Jr. put up 18, Eric Gordon scored 16, Alperen Sengun had 15, and Jabari Smith Jr. added 13.

But they were little match for a full-strength Kings team. Keegan Murray lead the team with 30 points and Malik Monk continued his excellent play on this road trip with a 20-point night off the bench. Kevin Huerter threw in 16 points and Trey Lyles had 14.

As for Sac’s all-star talents, they did what they had to do, revealing their impact through the winning performance of their team than through their stat line. Though, their lines weren’t bad. De’Aaron Fox scored 16 with 8 assists while Domantas Sabonis logged another double-double with 17 points and 10 assists to go along with 7 boards.

After Mike Brown called his team’s mentality into question on Sunday night after an ugly loss in New Orleans, they bounced back. Now, they’re 3-3 on the trip with a legitimate opportunity—an expectation, really—to finish above .500 on this long trip.

And adding to the moment, Sacramento won their 30th game, which was the win total that maxed out at last season. 

Game summary (takeaways below)

With Fox back, the pace looked a lot better in the first quarter. Houston broke through for some paint scores, but Sacramento demonstrated that when they can contain the dribble, their defense can succeed. The Kings began to impose their will with more ease on both ends past the midway point of the period, going on a run to get a double digit lead. Houston did manage 14 paint points, trailing 24-31 after one.

De’Aaron Fox and the second unit guys pushed the lead up to double digits again early in the second quarter. The Rockets got inside three straight times and hit their first three-pointer to cut the deficit to 3, but the Kings responded with a 23-9 run to close out the half with the help of Fox, Huerter, Murray, and Sabonis as they held their opponent to just 24 points for the second period of play in a row. Sacramento had just 5 turnovers at the half, were on pace for 30+ assists, and lead 65-48. 

Houston began the half 11 of 13 from the field, sparking a 23-14 run and getting the deficit to a single digit number. The Rockets were getting more looks inside, hitting three’s (6 of their first 8), and Jalen Green was heating up. Keegan Murray sunk two straight three’s to stretch the lead back out, hitting another not long after. The teams essentially traded baskets to close the quarter, but the Kings surrendered 40 points in the third after allowing 48 in all of the first half.

The Kings returned to complimentary basketball, playing well on both ends of the floor, and allowing one end to set up for the other. About halfway through the quarter, Sac’s lead jumped up to 20 points as Monk got it going from deep and Murray reached a new career high for points and three’s made in a game. And from there, Sac held their chokehold until the job was finished. 

The return of vitality

After Sunday’s loss, the Kings looked lifeless, but one night later, they’re reinvigorated. Fox returned, the pace improved, and the defensive focus rebounded. 

The result of this game did not require a 30-point night from Fox as he scored just 16 on 5 of 12 from the field with 9 trips to the free throw line, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and a block. With him on the floor, with him creating additional problems for the opposition, everything began clicking for Sacramento.

Looking like a different team than the night before, the pace was apparent from the start and from a variety of guys, not just Fox. Even as Fox began 0 of 3 from the field, he was pushing for quick offense in the full court and applying pressure to Houston’s defense in the half court. The shots did not fall right away, but the Kings looked like the more sprightly squad

The shot attempts did begin falling and the Kings were able to run into halftime with a nice lead, relentlessly riding their flow to the rim

The Rockets made things interesting, but Sac recovered and turned the game back into the blowout it was becoming. Whether Fox was on the floor or not, the Kings offense looked like it was running smoothly, racking up assists and keeping the turnovers low.

Another indicator of the fact the team was in better synchronization was the defense. It was not perfect, giving up 60 paint points and lapsing at times, such as the start of the second half, but from the start, it was a lot better in terms of effort and responsiveness.

Those are the two necessary ingredients to creating an effective defense; of course, add in consistency, and now you’re talking about championship level defense. The Kings are far from that, but they showed that they can continue cultivating that in the big picture based on the way they played in Monday’s win.

Fox lead in this regard as well, setting a tone on this hustle play to prevent a gimme fast break score. He and his teammates were aware and active, doing a nice job of forcing some turnovers and sticking to the basics.

They didn’t just play better defense, they had pride in themselves and responded to the challenge in front of them.

On Sunday, Mike Brown expressed that he does not “know if (the team’s) all in like (they’d) talked about at the beginning of the year.”

“So right now, I’m gonna sit back, I’m gonna watch, and I’m gonna see how we all handle this adversity,” the head coach added.

Without losing sight of the fact more adversity will befall them, the Kings did an excellent job of bouncing back.

Fox the all-star

He became a father, now he looks to punch his ticket to Salt Lake City.

When news broke about the extent of Steph Curry’s injury this weekend, it was evident that De’Aaron Fox would indeed get that chance to be an all-star replacement. He undoubtedly tops the list of those under consideration, and even his competition agrees.

So yeah, there’s no harm just referring to him as an all-star.

In the two back-to-back losses in Indiana and then in New Orleans, the absence of Fox appeared to make the best argument for his all-star worthiness. His return to the floor made an argument of equal, if not greater, strength.

“Again, he’s an all-star,” Mike Brown said of Fox postgame. “When he’s on the floor it brings a different level of a play that our opponents have to try to adjust to with his speed.”

Murray’s career night

Rookie Keegan Murray had a career night against the Rockets, scoring his high with 30 points and hitting a high in three’s made with 8 of them.

After going 1 of 16 from deep over the previous three contests, Murray had an admirable individual response to some subpar play.

When he went 0 of 6 from three against San Antonio, not only was that the first of three less than impressive performances, it also marked the 50th game of the season, a point where first-year players are prone to hit the “rookie wall” after all the work, travel, and commitment required for the NBA begins to wear them down.

Really, the fatigue factor looked like it was affecting everybody.

But in his typical fashion, Keegan Murray looked like anything but a rookie in this regard.

Watching him in this game and all season, it’s incredible that Murray has provided such a consistent stream of three-point shooting. It was clear he had a nice skillset coming out of college with physical tangibles that seemed to paint an exciting ceiling, but to see him come into the league and shoot 40.4% from beyond the arc like some kind of cyborg is just wild.

Funnily enough, his brother Kris is regarded as the better shooter, but Keegan has created room for an argument as to who is the best outside shooter on the team. If one removes the rocky month of November for the rookie, that argument might not appear as close.

It was easy to see that Keegan Murray has a potential path to stardom and even that he could be a productive rookie, but his impact almost seems too good to be true. However, based on the number of times he, as a rookie, has bounced back, it’s evident this is not just hype.

The kid’s just good at basketball.

In-rhythm Kevin Huerter

Late in the game on Sunday, Huerter played out the closing minutes of mop up time. He looked off offensively in the four previous games and most of that one, but he hit 3 of 5 shots and 2 of 4 from deep in the fourth quarter for 10 points, appearing to have reattained some rhythm.

He went 7 of 12 from the field and 2 of 7 from three on Monday for 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.

Best of all, though, his defense looked sharp.

To be clear, Kevin Huerter has shown to be a great off-ball defender, but he’s had some low moments on-ball.

In the first quarter, he got beat by Eric Gordon and then on the following possession for Houston, he stuck with Gordon decently before sending him to the line with a foul. After those early mistakes, he nipped them in the bud, going on to actually have a nice night on that end and winning the DPOG chain.

In fact, his off-ball defense looked top notch, which is a testament to his activity and improvement since being coached by Mike Brown. 

From the weak side and in the paint, Huerter’s excellently timed help produced a block shot. Off-ball again here, Huerter offers help, utilizing nice positioning off a screen to disrupt a passing lane for a steal. As the low man, his instincts were alert as he deflected a pass, bestowing Keegan Murray with an easy steal.

When Huerter is scoring—either hitting three’s, finding other means, or both—and providing his off-ball defense, he’s giving his team an optimal impact. He doen’t have to hit three’s at a 50% clip, but he does have to have a rhythm and have his legs under him.

It was a good sign for Huerter and the Kings.

Malik Monk continues impressive stretch

Through all the up’s and down’s of this trip, Malik Monk has been one of the more consistent players. Interesting, too, because prior to the road trip, he still seemed stuck in a bit of a slump.

On 6 of 12 from the field and 4 of 7 from deep, Monk scored 20 points with a couple of assists.

His three-point shooting in the second half (4 of 5) drove the final nails into the coffin.

“Having a guy out there that is coming off your bench, that can change the game in a lot of different ways is a huge bonus for us,” coach Brown said of him.

Going forward

Similar to how they started this seven-game road trip with two games in Minnesota, the Kings will get to stay put in Houston before playing the Rockets again on Wednesday.

Sacramento is 3-0 so far against Stephen Silas’ squad and will look to make the season sweep. his week.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
1 month ago

Good bounce back after the consecutive bad efforts before and after the weekend. I couldn’t even finish the Pels game to be honest. They should be able to take the second game against Houston also. Then we’ll hold our breath for the Kings to make a semi significant move or two before the deadline, really hoping they do. We could really use more defense around these parts!