Without Fox, Some Zone D Propels Kings Within a Half Game of 2nd Place

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 06: Domantas Sabonis #10 high-fives with Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings in the second half of their game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Golden 1 Center on March 06, 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)

Without De’Aaron Fox, the Kings handled the Pelicans at home, winning 123-108 by dominating the second half.

Sacramento’s energy and effort seemed restored after a day off, but they found themselves tied with New Orleans in the first half. Out of halftime, the Kings managed to totally disrupt the Pelicans offense with the use of a zone look, holding them to 49 second half points.

Kevin Huerter lead all scorers with 25 points, adding in 5 rebounds and 8 assists. With him, Domantas Sabonis posted his eighth triple-double of the season—tying a franchise record—scoring 19 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Starting in place of Fox, Davion Mitchell scored 15 points with 6 assists and his typical defensive effort. Harrison Barnes scored 14, Keegan Murray had 13, and off the bench, Trey Lyles added 14.

New Orleans is struggling with injuries, but they still proved to be a solid opponent. The lengthy Brandon Ingram lead his team with 24 points while Jonas Valanciunas dropped in 19 with 12 boards. Trey Murphy scored 17, CJ McCollum put up 14, and Herbert Jones added 13 with 8 assists.

“Tonight, it was better,” Mike Brown said postgame after ABC 10’s Matt George asked how the performance differed from the previous game against the Timberwolves. “I still think we can do better, but it improved from the Minnesota game. A lot of little things that we’ve talked about defensively, you can see the growth from that game to this game, and now we have to continue to grow little by little while trying to consistently do it night in and night out.” 

After losing two games in early February without their all-star point guard, the Kings have now won the last two, again showing a team-wide responsiveness to a challenge.

Now Sacramento sits just a half game behind the Grizzlies. With everything going awry in Memphis, all eyes are on that second spot in the West. The Grizzlies play Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and with the playoff race in full stride, it’s a rare instance where a Lakers win could deliver joy to the hearts of Kings fans.

Game summary (takeaways below)

Getting Huerter started early once again proved beneficial as he hit his first pair of three’s and was exhibiting a lot of bounce on defense. It wasn’t just him, the first five minutes featured a running faucet of scoring from both sides. Both shot over 60%, but as New Orleans’ field goal percentage rose beyond 70%, Sac’s was approaching 50%. And a trio of turnovers late in the period helped push the Pelicans to lead 32-29 after one.

With Huerter’s shooting and Davion Mitchell’s defense, the Kings began the second period on a 8-0 run. After a day off, it was easy to see the energy flowing out of the home team. It became a 20-10 advantage in the quarter, but New Orleans chipped away at it, using a 10-4 run to wind down the deficit. Sacramento went on a 6-0 run, but the Pelicans struck back, closing the half on a 10-2 run. The game was tied 59-all at the half.

The start of the third felt a lot like the beginning of the first quarter with the mutual volume of scoring. Huerter was still hitting shots, Sabonis was being Sabonis, and Harrison Barnes got a little fire under him on a no-call on a potential and-one—which resulted in a technical for the vet, his first in about a decade—but with defensive stops came a double-digit lead. Critical for those stops was the use of zone defense. After a 13-assist quarter, Sacramento lead 97-79.

Into the fourth, Sac stretched out the lead to 24 points as their zone defense and ball movement on offense were a useful combination. The score didn’t really change for the remainder of the game, hovering around 20 points until the Kings finally squeezed the last second off the clock.

Defensive energy and the utilization of the zone

From the moments directly following the opening tip-off, it was clear that the Kings were moving with a little more ease, looking to have an energy within them that seemed wearied over the weekend.

Moving well and using active hands, Sacramento was able to force early turnovers. Kings players were flying around, staying with their man, rotating, and getting up contests. It appeared to be the whole deal and team-wide as seen here and here.

But at the same time, a lot of damage was being done by the Pelicans by using the pick-and-roll or Valanciunas on the high post; there were so many moments where Pelicans players found open lanes to and looks at the rim. They also forced help from Sabonis, which was not always followed up by “helping the helper,” either due to lax awareness or effective drives. With all the scrambling, New Orleans was able to draw up or stumble upon a good look from three.

That was all in the first half. At halftime, New Orleans had 59 points on 60.5% from the field and hitting 9 of their 16 (56.3%) attempts from three.

And so the Kings coaching staff—specifically assistant coach Luke Loucks as Mike Brown said postgame—decided to go with a zone look on the defensive end.

The results were striking as Sacramento became a far more disruptive group by combining their activity with more paint traffic. New Orleans struggled to penetrate, pass, and open up good looks.

In the second half, the Pels put up only 49 points on 47.6% from the field while converting just 2 of their 13 attempts from deep. Better yet, after Brandon Ingram scored a very efficient 14 points in the first half on 5 of 6 from the field, he was held to 10 points 40.0% shooting in the second half.

Mike Brown loved what he saw, from team communication to actively “hunting” for bodies.

“We obviously played a lot of zone in the second half and it worked out for a number of reasons,” coach Brown assessed postgame. “I thought our guys communicated. I thought they tried to keep finding bodies when shots went up because when you play zone in our league, you’re usually in an area and so you got to go hunt for bodies when the shot goes up, and guys are so long and athletic and quick to the ball that, at times, boxing people out when you’re playing zone doesn’t always work out to your advantage, but our guys were communicating they were into it and they were able to find ways to get stops while playing the zone.”

The group of guys are responsive when crunch time arrives, but all season, there have been so many instances of savvy adjustments from the coaching staff. This one stands out because it was the first successful adjustment that leaned almost entirely on zone defense.

After the win, Kevin Huerter was asked if the zone defense is practiced much. He said no, but added that it may “go both ways” given that most teams “don’t practice against the zone.” 

It’ll be interesting to see if that’s put to use more in the near future. If not, the coaching staff have it in their back pocket.

Kevin Huerter did everything

Here in Sacramento, Kevin Huerter is rounding into a complete player. With his shooting slumps in the middle of the season, it was not always obvious, but in the big picture it’s undeniable. And the way he’s playing right now, it’s impossible to overlook.

However, he was getting most of his production from behind the three-point line. Huerter finished with 25 points on 9 of 16 from the field, including 6 of 10 from beyond the arc. It was the second straight game where he hit six three’s and the third in four games where he scored 20 or more.

Mark Jones offered a useful anecdote on the TV broadcast. He recounted a recent conversation with the sharpshooter about when the Kings bus ride in Oklahoma City was delayed due to a tornado warning. With the extra time, Huerter went back in to get up some more shots, and in that time, he made an adjustment with his shot base. It was after the first of two in OKC, and since then, he’s gone 17 of 29 (58.6%) from three.

In addition to the offense, Huerter had some nice moments on the defensive end, doing a little bit of everything. 

Here, his activity and active hands were terrific as he moved around decisively to end up with a block. What made this so useful—and what allowed him to get down to the man at the rim—were the “high hands” Mike Brown often mentions; both he and Barnes forced “a hang time pass” rather than a dart, which would have created a more open opportunity.

Of course, Huerter’s strength on that end may come from his weak side patrol, which produced  favorable results twice. The first time, he slid in as the low man to make a shot attempt more difficult and as a result, Harrison Barnes ended up with a block. And the second time, Huerter used great vision and reaction time to come up with one of his characteristic weak side interceptions, getting a score on the other end.

Additionally, Huerter had 5 rebounds one game after Mike Brown called he and Malik Monk out for amassing a single rebound between the two of them against Minnesota. As seen here, Huerter had a responsive night on the boards.

Without Fox, he had 8 assists, helping to fill in the facilitation void and mostly with the help of his two-man game with Sabonis (five of those assists went to Domas).

And Mike Brown commended his “pace in the half court,” highlighting the fact that Huerter’s “hard” cuts do so much for the offense because he’ll often open somebody up with a decisive cut.

In so many ways, Huerter was great, and by the feel of things, he’s only heating up.

The one thing, however, that he did not do—and has not done all season—is hit his free throws. His lone trip to the line came after being fouled on a three-point attempt; he missed his first two before sinking the last, going 1 for 3. On the year, he’s shooting 69.9% from the charity stripe.

Davion’s best game of the season?

Since probably his most underwhelming performance of the season starting in place for Fox last month in Indiana, the last two spot starts for Davion Mitchell have been impressive.

In Oklahoma City last week, Mitchell brought his defense and hit 3 early three’s to finish with 15 points. Aside from one of his assists, Mitchell did not take many opportunities to drive and attack. Even as he had a good performance, a question remained: what would have happened if those first three’s did not fall? (Recall, he finished the game 0 of 4 from deep.)

Against New Orleans, Mitchell again brought the defense he brings every night and he also hit 3 three’s, but what heightened his impact was the use of dribble penetrations.

Mitchell hit his first three, but missed his second. His first field goal attempt in the second quarter came after he attacked the middle of the floor, using his quickness and strength to finish beautifully at the rim.

But it was more than Mitchell getting points himself, though that makes a huge difference, especially considering how his timid performance in Indiana created no concern for the opposing defense. More than getting his own scores, Mitchell was able to hook his teammates up by being aggressive.

Mitchell tied his season-high in assists with 6 of them, and half were the results of his aggressiveness.

In the first quarter, Mitchell’s dribble penetration attracted additional attention to the strong side as Huerter and Metu ran a split action on the other side; doing so created an even higher percentage look for Metu.

With Huerter in the opposite corner, Mitchell drove from the wing, turning along the baseline. With Davion coming in hot, the Pelicans defender assigned to Huerter—and who probably heard about this play—put his attention on Mitchell. And with a good feel for the situation, Huerter made a smart cut that resulted in an easy score. Even if the defender decided to actually move, it probably would have been him stepping up, thus giving Huerter (or Murray on the wing, or Barnes at the top with an extra pass or two) an open look from three.

Early in the fourth with Metu moving to the dunker’s spot, Mitchell drove the moment Huerter cut over towards the weakside, creating a defensive breakdown that allowed an easy alley-oop for Metu to complete.

With that component included, it may very well have been Davion Mitchell’s best game of the season.

Furthermore, coach Brown substantiated that, noting how Mitchell’s confidence made other positive impacts.

“He made a couple of play calls to get guys in position throughout the course of the night, which were fantastic,” the head coach said of Mitchell. “He weighed me off a couple of times and went to who he felt he should have gone to on the floor, and it was the right call every every single time he did it. And so, to see growth in that area tonight was special because he’s got a chance to be a special player in this league.”

Going forward

The Kings won’t play again until Thursday when the Knicks come to town.

New York’s visit to Sacramento will be featured on TNT, making it the second nationally televised game for the Kings this season. The first was in November when the Kings ran the Nets out of the gym.

But the last time they played the Knicks, the Kings lost on the road in one of the handful of forgettable games where the team looked well below the requisite level of energy. Fox did not play in that one, and after missing Monday’s contest with a hamstring, he could potentially miss this one.

Tom Thibodeau’s team is one of the hottest in the league and currently sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They play Tuesday before coming to Sacramento, and going into that one, they’re on a nine-game win streak. Moreover, they’ve won eleven of their last twelve.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
21 days ago

Hats of to Domas, 1st in double double, only 1 away from Luka for 2nd in triple doubles…the guy is a machine! Good to see the Kings are coming out with good defense in the 4th quarter and most of second halves lately. If you’re going to play harder and execute, it’s all least better to do it later in the game. Maybe eventually Brown will coax them to perform that way earlier on also. 38 wins already is great for the team and fans…can they go 12-6 rest of the way, and aim for the big 5-0?! That would be great for the team, finish with 50 and hopefully in the top 5 in standings also. #LTB!