The Good and the Bad from the Final Game of Sac’s Trip

HOUSTON, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 08: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings smiles after hitting a foul shot to take the lead in the final seconds ahead of Jalen Green #4 of the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on February 08, 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)

Here at the conclusion of a rigorous seven-game trip, the end of the road brought its twists in turns as the Kings beat the Rockets, 130-128, in a wild one that went down to the very end where De’Aaron Fox hit three free throws to seal up the victory.

Sacramento’s lack of defense kept Houston in this game, allowing them to stay in it from start to finish and lead for most of it, but the better team bore down, benefitting from their advantage in the turnover differential (+5 and +13 in points off), in fouls committed (+6 and +2 in free throw attempts), and in assists (29 for a .630 AST%).

Fox had a double-double and lead his team with 31 points with 11 assists. Domantas Sabonis put up 22 points, but his new double-double streak came to an end with just 9 boards. Finishing off a great trip, Malik Monk scored 17 off the bench with 3 assists. Harrison Barnes added 16, Keegan Murray had 10 and took the franchise record for rookie three’s, and Terence Davis provided a valuable 10 points himself.

But again, the overall defensive performance set up for a neck and neck contest. Sacramento surrendered a whopping 70 points inside, 17 second chance points, and 15 offensive rebounds.

Jalen Green lead all scorers with 41 points, Kenyon Martin Jr. had 15, and Jae’Sean Tate put up 16 off the bench. And Alperen Sengun had a near triple-double with 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 11 assists.

In one sense, this was a great win because it capped off the longest road trip of the season with a win, meaning Sac finished 4-3 on it. However, the inability to contain the dribble remains a glaring issue going forward.

Game summary (takeaways below)

The Rockets was permitted to gain an early lead in the first by finding looks in the paint, getting second chance opportunities (7 points), and scoring in the fast break (8 points). It was mostly a back and forth first quarter as the superior team allowed their opponent enough good looks to shoot over 57% in the period and amass 20 paint points. In the final minute or two, though, Houston went on a 10-2 run and was able to secure a 37-28 lead.

Sacramento assumed better control to start the second period, starting the first five minutes on an 11-4 run. Houston came to life a little to maintain the lead for a bit, but the Kings responded with a 9-2 run to take a lead on a Murray three that tied the franchise rookie record for three’s made. However, with some of the same defensive issues from the first period—fortifying inside, securing stops with rebounds—put the Rockets ahead at the half, 62-58. 

The flow took a bit to get going out of halftime with a lot of whistles, including two consecutive defensive three-seconds violation for the Kings on the same possession. Sacramento got a lead early in the third, but the same issues plagued them as Sabonis picked up his fifth foul before the period’s halfway marker. Late in the quarter, Malik Monk, Terence Davis, Davion Mitchell, and the bench helped spark a run to get their team up 99-97 after three.

The fourth quarter began very differently than the third ended as Houston forced the issue in the paint and continue disrupting on the boards, reclaim the lead early on. Not long after Sabonis returned, it appeared Fox was gearing up to take control as he and his team eventually unfurled a 14-4 run, including Murray’s rookie franchise record. But Jalen Green—who had 21 points at the half—stayed hot, getting to the rim and hitting three’s (hell, he looked like Fox here). 

The final two minutes featured a back and forth battle with two challenged calls, driving up the anticipation with added periods of waiting. Fox hit a floater to cut the deficit to just 1 point, Green missed in response, and after a Monk drive, Sabonis and Murray logged multiple offensive rebounds as a battle on the glass produced a jump ball with five seconds left. On the jump, the ball went out of bounds and Houston’s way (even as it looked like it should have gone the other way). Having to foul twice, the Rockets inbounded it twice from the side; the first was met with a foul and on the second, Monk came up with a steal with about a second left, still down a single point. With the ball advanced after a timeout, Fox was fouled on a three-point attempt, hitting all three to secure the 2-point win. 

A wild one, and a successful roadie

Rarely does a game get a wild hair up its ass and bear witness to the Kings coming out on top, but Wednesday night was just that.

And when it’s the last of a seven-game road trip and you’re sitting at 3-3 through the first six at a time when the all-star break is on the horizon, the mantra that a “win is a win” never feels more accurate.

Even as Fresno-native Jalen Green was hotter than a two-dollar pistol and the Rockets were having their way inside for most of the night, the Kings found a way to win it.

Sacramento had just gone on a 14-4 run, but Green answered with a big three, which began to usher the momentum in the other direction. Houston rode the wave of a 12-2 run and then denied Sabonis on the other end in impressive fashion for such a young team.

It looked like the Kings were about to drop the game with about a minute left.

De’Aaron Fox then stole the ball and slammed it through at the other basket to cut the deficit to 3 points. After the push one way, the Rockets pushed the other way, appearing to have an advantage until Keegan Murray stepped in and drew a vital charging foul. After Houston’s challenge was deemed unsuccessful (and they lost their final timeout), Fox hit a floater that probably drove Stephen Silas crazy due to his team’s defense, and then Green was unable to deliver an answer to it.

On the offensive side, Monk drove to the basket and missed. On the boards, Sabonis and Murray battled and tried to tip in the put back, but to no avail. As the rookie put up the third and final attempt, he was blocked, forcing a jump ball with five ticks remaining.

After being thrown up, the ball looked to be knocked out by Eric Gordon, but the last touch was called on Fox. Following a Houston timeout, they inbounded and were met with a Malik Monk take foul. There was still another foul to give, and thus another inbound attempt, this time with a little over two seconds left. On it, Alperen Sengun left it in Monk’s range, who came up with the steal as Sac’s bench called time immediately.

With the ball advanced and with just over a second left, it was inbounded to Fox, who was fouled, oddly enough, by one of the lone vets on the Rockets, Eric Gordon. And the NBA’s most clutch player hit three clutch free throws to win 130-128.

It was a wild finish and the Kings got a big victory to their credit…

…But the defense was pretty damn bad

Throughout the game, Sacramento could not contain Houston in the paint as the bottom feeder ate up paint points and second chance opportunities.

It simply kept them in the game and was a main reason why there were so many back and forth stretches in this contest.

The rebounding, or lack thereof, immediately stands out. Securing them was a tough task all night for Sacramento. There were moments where the Kings would avoid damage from other defensive mistakes only for the rebounding to deal them the consequences. Here, even on nice defense from Trey Lyles, the team’s crash of the boards was practically nonexistent.

Making matters worse, the Kings struggled to contain the dribble at times and allowed too many open lanes or looks at the basket. For instance, Metu made Sengun look graceful on this finish, which is to say the Turk did not feel Mezie at all. But the problems in this regard are on the perimeter.

The inability to contain the dribble forces rotations which have obvious limitations and prove unsustainable if forced into them all nigh.

This is a team issue that the Kings know they have to fix. Mike Brown talked about it after the loss to the Pelicans in detail. While it is a team issue, here are three examples that all come from one guy.

Kevin Huerter is awesome as an off-ball defender. What he does on the weak side in terms of help and interceptions is among the best out of all the Kings players. He’s a very smart player that utilizes great activity, and credit goes to him, coach Brown, and Jordi Fernandez.

On-ball is another story entirely. He’s not awful or a liability necessarily, but it’s stood out at times for the wrong reasons. To clarify, Huerter won the DPOG chain after Monday’s win even after getting beat by Eric Gordon twice in the first quarter; his overall defensive impact is still mostly a net positive and more importantly, is improving.

So this is not to make an example of Huerter. It’s just that he happened to run into similar issues in this game, too. 

Here, on Kenyon Martin Jr., Huerter attempts to cut off the driving lane for Houston’s guard, but not having the most advantageous positioning to shuffle down the lane, he attempted to draw a charge just as Martin made a step through. Huerter ended up with a blocking foul. Had there been no foul, Sabonis would have been there to help, but Martin would then be able to dump it to Sengun for an easy look.

Miscommunication causes chaos here as both Huerter, Sabonis, and Fox pursue Jalen Green after a screen is set. Huerter’s man Martin is left wide on the wing and both Sabonis and Huerter rush back to their guys. Sabonis was close enough to come to pick up Bruno Fernando and defend down low, but Huerter had little chance of closing the distance he allowed. Martin drove and was fouled by Sabonis on a dunk attempt, going to the line.

The best illustration though comes from when Sabonis picked up his fifth foul. Trying to trap Green, Sengun slipped into the paint before getting picked up by Barnes. The center failed to pass it to the open man in the corner as the Kings were forced to scramble, defending inside pretty well. When the ball was passed out to Eric Gordon on the weak side wing—just past Huerter’s outstretched hand—the vet beat Sacramento’s redheaded guard as Sabonis was forced to step up, drawing the shooting foul.

To keep things simple, though, just remember that Houston finished with 70 paint points, 15 offensive boards for 17 second chance points, and shot 54.7% from the field, scoring 128 points in total.

At risk of stating the obvious, the perimeter defense has an effect on the entire defense, and it’s got to be more effective and with some degree of consistency.

The bench in the third quarter

When Domantas Sabonis was assessed his fifth foul just beyond the seven-minute mark of the third quarter, it looked like disaster was about to supervene. The Rockets had already been rolling punch for punch with the Kings, so forcing one half of Sacramento’s star duo to go to the bench at that junction looked like they could very well end this road trip 3-4.

But the bench kept things afloat to close the third quarter, carrying over the possibility of getting the road win, a result that did in fact occur.

Monk set a tone with a three, which may not have fallen in the prettiest of manners, but which set things in motion, as he so often does.

On the next offensive possession, Terence Davis had a nice drive and dump off to Metu, who sunk the look. 

A little later, Davis continued making an invaluable impact in his minutes. His activity forced a deflection (he was credited with 3 in his 15 minutes) and not long after he brought on the ball pressure, forcing a turnover and getting the layup as a reward for his efforts. 

He kept it up on the defensive side, too. Even though Jabari Smith Jr. got it to fall, Davis stepped up here as the low man as best as someone of his size can, simply making the shot as difficult as possible after a heedful rotation.

Davion Mitchell brought his typical defensive pressure, engaging in traps and moving all over the place, which in one case resulted in a steal and score for the second-year man. In another instance, Mitchell’s defensive labor drew a foul that put the opponent over the limit. He also sunk a three-pointer and made a great pass to Chimezie Metu, who’d made a heads up cut and converted the attempt.

Near the end of the third, Monk made up for the fact his previous made three was not as alluring, stepping back for one worth replaying. Frankly, Monk is right up there with Davis and Mitchell in the third quarter effort from the bench; he’s been great on this trip, and the bounce in his step infects the team, especially the bench guys. He was the lifeblood of this admirable effort.

The bench got Sacramento a 99-97 lead after the third, the first time the Kings lead at the end of any period of the previous two periods. 

Overall, the bench has had some nice moments on this trip—recall they played better than the starters for much of the loss in New Orleans—and they played a huge part in the fact that the Kings will embark on a happy flight home.

Murray breaks a franchise record, eyes an NBA record

Hear that? That’s Keegan Murray’s three-point shot making history.

Going 2 of 4 from beyond the arc Wednesday, Murray tied and then surpassed Bogdan Bogdanović for the franchise rookie record for three’s made in a season. The Iowa product now sits alone atop that grouping with 130 of them in 52 games played.

After reaching 100 three’s made in the third quickest timeframe and now topping the franchise record, Murray is certainly within reach of breaking the NBA record that Donovan Mitchell set with 187 made.

At about 2.5 three-point makes per contest and with 30 games remaining, he should be able to make another 58 to top the record that was set during the 2017-18 season.

One year anniversary

Wednesday’s game not only marked the end of the longest road trip for this team, it also marked the one year anniversary of the Kings acquiring Domantas Sabonis.

Since his debut for Sacramento, the Kings have gone 41-39, which obviously includes the terrific 31-23 record that they sit at currently. Not only have they risen towards the top of their conference, Sabonis got his third all-star nod and—barring something crazy—De’Aaron Fox should join him. 

Sabonis and Fox together have proven to be one of the best duos in all of the NBA, and Domas has played at level that should at least include his name in MVP discussions (though winning it is another ordeal entirely).

Some like the deal, but there were a lot of people that panicked when they saw Tyrese Haliburton traded, and it makes sense because at this time last season, Haliburton was the extent of optimism for this franchise. It just took a tad longer for some of those people to realize that Sabonis—with Fox alongside him—represented a more tangible optimism, a path to real success.

The most prudent thing to have done was waited it out and seen how things would turn out. And a year later, the deal proved a win-win as the Kings added Sabonis, dumped Buddy Hield’s contract, and set the stage for what the team is doing now.

Going forward

The trade deadline is today at noon (PST). Nobody needs to tell you to keep an eye on that, especially with the competition in the West rising quickly.

Beyond the deadline, Sacramento is faced with a unique challenge: a home back-to-back against Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic, and the Mavericks. Irving made his debut Wednesday for Dallas versus the Clippers, but without Doncic. According to Jason Kidd, though, the Slovenian should play Friday for the first game.

Both players’ presence will set up for a critical weekend series.

Not only is the star power there with two of the Western Conference’s best playing, it could very well be the closest thing all season to a playoff atmosphere at The Golden 1 Center. It’s been loud all season, but this is a big pair of games.

With a sizable traffic jam in the conference standings, these two games could prove pivotal in terms of seeding.

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