In the final game before the all-star break, the Kings dropped one in Phoenix, 109-120 as Devin Booker and the Suns had a field day against Sacramento’s defense.
Phoenix was allowed to be a leach inside, sucking away 62 paint points as the Kings struggled to contain the dribble. Due to that, they shot 56.8% from the field. Making matters worse, the Kings struggled to protect the ball and secure rebounds in the second half. After committing 5 turnovers for 11 points in the first, they had 12 for 14 points in the second. And in the first, they surrendered 3 offensive boards for 7 second chance points before allowing another 5 in the next half for 13 points.
Devin Booker was terrific, going 13 of 20 from the field for 32 points in limited time. With him, Deandre Ayton (29 points, 11 rebounds) and Chris Paul (17 points, 19 assists) both had double-double’s. And in his second start since the deadline, Josh Okogie added 19 points.
For the Kings, De’Aaron Fox scored an efficient 35 points on 12 of 22 from the field (it was his sixth 30-plus point game in his previous seven appearances), but had 5 turnovers, and fellow all-star Domantas Sabonis had a double-double with 24 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. Kevin Huerter scored 18, hitting 4 of 9 from deep. Other than that, Sac got 11 points each from Harrison Barnes and Terence Davis.
Simply put, it was not the best way to finish before the all-star break.
Game summary (takeaways below)
Both teams exhibited activity on both ends. The Kings appeared to put an emphasis on the glass, getting a pair of offensive boards, but Phoenix was doing the same and taking better advantage of the second chance opportunities. But Mike Brown had to call time after Booker leaked out for two straight quick scores in transition. The two offenses traded blows, Phoenix from the inside (16 paint points) and Sacramento from the outside (5 of 9 from deep). The Kings lead 29-27 after one.
The Suns kept their foot on the gas in terms of leaking out and pushing the ball to the other end. Sacramento played with their typical energy and effort, but the Suns were able to manage a 14-2 run to gain the lead with some nice defense. The three didn’t fall at the same rate for the Kings at the start of the second, but a few from Huerter and an extremely deep one from Fox late in the shot clock almost retook the lead, but Phoenix kept themselves up 4 points at the half.
In the second half, the inability to fortify the perimeter allowed the Suns to go on a 14-4 run to go up double digits with the help of looks at the rim, open three’s, and some Kings turnovers. But when Booker (on a minutes restriction) went to the bench, the Kings were able to flip it into a 9-0 run as Phoenix committed three straight turnovers. It turned into a 15-6 run, topped by a last second steal and score from Fox to make it 86-90 after three.
Phoenix forced an early timeout as the Kings made early mistakes to allow a 7-2 Suns run. Out of that timeout, the teams began duking it out in physical fashion. It did not help, though, that Sac had a second 6-turnover quarter in a row. Fox may have been poised for some late game heroics, but the Suns kept causing trouble and finding quality looks. Phoenix’s final three field goals maintained their lead and sealed the game; they also served as a microcosm for the Kings’ issues in this contest as a whole: first Booker scored, then he broke down the defense, and then Sacramento allowed a second chance score. And that was it.
The second half brought its fair share of turnovers (which are killers on the road) as well as Suns second chance points, which definitely contributed to this loss for the Kings, but their inability to slow things from the perimeter allowed Phoenix to find a ton of high-percentage looks.
Sacramento’s defense was either lax or scrambling, but either way, they did a lot to allow their opponent to shoot such a high clip from the field. Some of that was a lack of boxing out and rebounding (which at one point spoiled some nice isolation defense from Keegan Murray), or allowing guys to leak out (which happened three times), but most of the time the Suns utilized great pace and crisp passing to pick the Kings apart.
Much of it can be funneled down into one illustrative moment at the end of the game when Booker broke down the defense coming off a screen, which sent the defenders running all over the place and which lead to a wide open corner three.
To start the game, Chris Paul used a pass to split a double-team and find Ayton at the free throw line for a quality look. And later in the quarter when guarding the pick-and-roll with Saben Lee handling the ball, there was no help for Fox, who at least played with some effort; both Trey Lyles and Terence Davis barely moved. Similar was when Lyles was forced to switch onto Booker, who drove against the mismatch and was met by only Fox from the weak side.
Not far off from that last play, a Phoenix push forced another scramble as Lyles came up to close out on Booker, who was then able to waltz into the paint and finish too easily (though, still impressively) against a vertical Chimezie Metu. Later, another push did not allow Huerter to get set, which thus created a canyon-sized lane and allowed Damion Lee to find an open Ayton after Domas was forced to help.
Deandre Ayton was fed well as Sac defenders scrambled. Here, after a screen, a doubled Booker hands it off to CP3; four defenders were consolidated in the vicinity of three Suns players and Paul passed it to Torrey Craig who was not stopped by Huerter (who crashed too hard towards the corner not thinking Lyles was there) and Murray (who more or less remained a statue) and who dumped it to the big man for a dunk.
There were not many answers. The Kings surrounded Ayton well in a play nearly identical to Phoenix’s first of the game, but even without an open shot, Ayton passed it to the corner where Josh Okogie drove and dumped it back off to the cutting big man as three defenders converged on the driver.
As alluded to, the Kings had their moments that could be classified as “close, but not close enough.” Such was the case when the Kings failed to recover a deflected 50/50 ball, which allowed Damion Lee to penetrate against an unset defense, scoring as TD put himself prematurely in the air as the low man.
And maybe this is a silver lining or an optimistic take, but there were moments where the Kings looked a little off; that is they were prone for mental mistakes and communicative errors. Here, maybe Davis thought there’d be help from Harrison Barnes as he fouled Damion Lee. Here, nobody tries to step in front of a driving Booker, which visibly befuddled De’Aaron Fox at the end of the play. And here, Okogie is afforded a wide open cutting lane as Terence Davis took his eyes off him and as there was limited help inside.
They certainly looked a little slow at times and tired as well with the break waiting on the other end of the game. But that’s hardly an excuse. Many of these problems have ravaged this team all season, and the Suns did a great job of picking a lot of their weaknesses apart.
0-2 vs. Durant-less Suns
The Kings have now lost the first two of the four games they play against the Suns this season. And for the final pair of contests, they will have Kevin Durant playing.
In other words, Sacramento was unable to take advantage of some decent opportunities to help their place in the standings.
First, in November, they lost on their home floor, allowing Booker to go off for 44 points while Fox was bothered by a foot bruise, and dropping the contest by failing to secure a late-game defensive rebound. Chris Paul did not play in that game.
And now, the Suns were able to win a fairly competitive contest with relative ease while still lacking Durant as well as Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne. And this time, Sacramento benefitted from both their stars playing excellently.
Of course, the first two—like any NBA game—was not a gimme. However, things will only get tougher.
Thinking ahead to the final conference standings, this could come back to bite Sacramento. Right now, the Kings go into the break one whole game above Phoenix.
Keep an eye out for more Kessler Edwards
In 10 minutes, Kessler Edwards demonstrated why fans could very well see more of him when their team returns from the all-star break.
As noted, Sacramento struggled to contain the dribble, so Mike Brown went to the lone trade deadline acquisition, and while he did not tip the balance in Sacramento’s favor, he looked like the kind of player who can be useful to the coaching staff.
Of course, a guy who was acquired for essentially nothing is not expected to come in and make an overwhelming impact that can yank the momentum of a game in his direction like a chihuahua on a leash.
In terms of a defensive-minded asset that can be called upon in games such as this in order to stop or slow the bleeding while not being an offensive liability.
Fans saw KZ Okpala used this way at times, but the long forward was a bit of an offensive liability given his inconsistency from three—in both making and taking them—as well as his floor and spacing awareness.
Sacramento evaluated PJ Dozier, who’d done it at the NBA level, but who was coming off an ACL injury, and Deonte Burton, who hadn’t done it at this level for an extended period. Neither stuck around.
Over a week ago, Keon Ellis came in against the Pelicans in a game the Kings were blown out of the water. The undrafted rookie looked terrific, but this past Friday, upon getting some early minutes, Ellis illustrated why he needs a bit more work. (Ellis did the same in this game, in fact, as he came in for a single defensive possession because Huerter had 4 fouls. In his momentary action, the rook committed a foul.)
So it was a matter of time for Kessler Edwards to get his opportunity. And in it, he looked like a possible asset on defense on three specific occasions.
He and Davion Mitchell first of all did a nice job of getting front of the ball handler in transition to force a pass out. Phoenix managed to grab the offensive board after the missed three, but Edwards and Davion prevented the initial easy score.
Here (even though the clip doesn’t really show it), he did a nice job staying with Booker, forcing a pass. Chris Paul ruined a potential stop hitting a tough three.
And the best example was when he played great on-ball defense against Booker, who just happened to make a tough fadeaway shot because that’s what he does. Nevertheless, Kessler Edwards made it as tough as possible.
Offensively, he looked comfortable, understanding spacing and taking an open three with confidence even though he missed it.
“We’ve talked about throwing him out there or Keon (Ellis) out there and we just went with the bigger body in Kessler,” coach Brown noted postgame. “And for the minutes that he played, I thought he was was pretty good.”
You will probably see more of him going forward.
Nevertheless, a great first 57 games
These last three were pretty important for Sacramento in terms of overall conference rankings and having tests against legit contenders. While the Kings went 1-2 to close out these final three games before the break, there’s something to be said about the fact the Kings are seven games above .500 at this point.
For practically everybody, they exceeded expectations. Plus, they are a great position to end the playoff drought.
Sacramento—as seen in this game—has its issues, but consistency and habits form with time, so reflecting on these last 57 games, the Kings are off to a great start to their big picture goal. After all, as Monte McNair said way back at media day in September, the organization obviously wants to make the playoffs, but their goal is to “stay there.”
With that in mind, it sure was a great first half (or first 57 games if you want to be specific).
“We have to go into the break and try to take care of ourselves while keeping our mind right, knowing that we got a long road ahead coming back after the break,” Mike Brown said after the loss. “So we just want to keep building on some of the good habits that we established throughout the course of the year so far and and then see if we can get a little bit better in some of the areas that we have to work a little bit harder in.”
Now it’s the all-star break. Fox, Sabonis, Huerter (three-point contest), and Murray (Rising Stars challenge) will all be in Salt Lake City this weekend.
The Kings will return to action in over a week from now on Thursday, February 23 when the Portalnd Trailblazers come to town. Sacramento lost to the Blazers at home on opening night, and in the first game back from the break, they’ll look to return the favor.
Portland has played two games with their deadline acquisitions Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish, going 1-1 in the pair of contests headed into the break. They now sit two games below .500 as they eye a late-season run.