Defensive Shortcomings Prevent a Perfect Road Trip for Sacramento

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 20: Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings passes around Kelly Olynyk #41 of the Utah Jazz during the second half at Vivint Arena on March 20, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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 Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

After trailing by 25 at one point, the Kings rallied back to make it a close game, but ultimately fell short against the Jazz, losing 120-128 to end their four-game road trip.

Sacramento took better care of the ball (6-12 in turnovers, 20-13 in points off), but their slow start (19-40 in the first period), Utah’s shooting percentages, and the 56 paint points allowed did not do them any favors, demonstrating how all it takes is a lapse or two to put a win just out of reach.

The Kings had some good performances, though. De’Aaron Fox scored an impressive 37 points to go along with 7 assists and Keegan Murray put up 22 points as both players hit six three’s each. Domantas Sabonis went just 4 of 11 from the field, but still managed to flirt with a triple-double with his 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists. Malik Monk scored 15 off the bench, and Kessler Edwards had a great defensive night starting in place of Kevin Huerter (right popliteus strain).

But Utah could say the same, even without some of their very best players in Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, and Jordan Clarkson. Rookie Ochai Agbaji looked good with 27 points, Kelly Olynyk scored 19 with 10 boards, Kris Dunn had 18 and 10 assists off the bench, and Walker Kessler had 10 points to go along with 5 blocks. In total, eight guys were in double figures after a great effort from Will Hardy’s guys.

“I’m not really disappointed in how we played offensively because it took us a little bit of rhythm just to see where and how to attack their zone (defense),” coach Mike Brown concluded about the contest. “I’m disappointed, more than anything else, in how we defended, giving up 128 points the way we did. That was disappointing to see.”

Memphis defeated Dallas to move up ahead of the Kings for second place, knocking Sacramento down into third with a tough task on hand for Tuesday night.

Game summary (takeaways below)

The Jazz were hitting a lot of three’s early, but the thing that irked coach Mike Brown was the handful of easy buckets at the rim for Utah. Worse, Sacramento entered about a six minute stretch where they could not hit a field goal. That unfurled a 21-1 Jazz run, which pushed their lead above twenty minutes. Sac trailed 19-40 after one.

Sacramento’s struggle to find a rhythm was not improving as Brown searched for combinations, throwing Keon Ellis and Matthew Dellavedova out there early. They were scoreless for roughly the first three minutes of the period, but Fox got things going (14 second period points). Harrison Barnes joined him to create a run, thus they were down 52-68 at the half.

The ball was zipping around a lot better out of halftime, appearing to be in total rhythm as Fox kept up his hot play. Add to it some stops and some Keegan Murray three’s and Sacramento managed to tie the game. Utah pulled back ahead for a few minutes, but the two aforementioned Kings leveled it out once again. After three, it was nodded at 95.

The Kings kept up their level of execution, actually taking the lead for the first time in the ball game about three minutes into the fourth. But Utah was seeing some more buckets at the rim, so the game went back and fourth in close fashion. The Jazz happened to be the ones that got the scores and stops to come out on top in the end as a handful of late three’s would not fall for Sacramento. 

Not the best defensive night

It’s a bummer that the statistics for this game bugged out a little, thus preventing the ability to attach the clips that illustrate certain defensive deficiencies in this game.

Nevertheless, 56 paint points for the Jazz says a lot.

“Defensively we were not good,” Mike Brown said postgame. “We weren’t physical at all. They kind of got to their spots, got what they wanted, and that helped them start the game feeling really, really, really, really comfortable.”

Utah utilized both three-pointers and scores inside to hold on in this game. In the first quarter three’s fell, and then came the easy looks at the rim. And in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter it was all of the above plus a surplus of trips to the free throw line for Utah, mainly from Agbaji.

Thinking about Sacramento’s last three games on this trip against Chicago, Brooklyn, and Washington, the Kings defended the middle well, allowing 30, 36, and 40 paint points in those respective games.

With that in mind, Jason Anderson asked Brown if he felt the 56 paint points felt like a step back.

“You’re gonna have steps backwards, but I thought yeah,” the head coach responded. “I thought, more than anything else, our physicality, our pick-and-roll defense wasn’t great. There were so many times that we either miscommunicated our coverage, didn’t hear our coverage. They just rejected it and went straight down hill and dunked on us.

“Our weak side was not good at all. First play of the game, they get a dunk because we’re hugged up to our man on the weak side of the floor.”

Miscommunication might be a sign of a little fatigue, which wouldn’t be unfounded in the last game of the final considerable road trip of the season. 

And the terrible weak side defense can also be affected by feeling tired, but also the fact that Sacramento’s best weak side defender in Kevin Huerter missed his second straight game.

“It’s gonna be tough to win if you have those mistakes plus not have a physical presence defensively,” Brown added.

Walker Kessler and Utah’s zone D constricted the Kings

A big reason Sacramento managed to score just 19 points in the first quarter was the zone defense Utah was utilizing. The Kings didn’t possess a ton of rhythm, and they did eventually locate it as well as cutting into that zone a little better, but it stunted them to start without a doubt

But throughout the entirety of the game it was the rookie out of Auburn that was the biggest disrupter. 

“The big fella was a monster,” Mike Brown admitted. “Walker Kessler — you gotta give him credit. We couldn’t get anything at the rim so we had to rely on jumpers.”

Brown has noted many times in the past that shot-blocking is not necessary for a team to play effective defense, but he knows when to give credit where it’s due.

On the night, the Kings went 9 of 20 in the high paint and 11 of 20 in the restricted area as Kessler finished the game with 5 blocks. And Domantas Sabonis (11 points on 4 of 11 shooting) was mired with frustration due to Kessler’s defensive presence down low.

His size and adequate mobility combined with an obviously well-coached understanding of fundamentals defending at the rim without fouling is marvelous, and the kid deserves his kudos.

Keegan Murray got even closer to history

Sacramento also has an incredible rookie.

Keegan Murray shot 6 of 14 from three, hitting some deep shots within critical stretches of the game. Even though he missed his first two and later aired one, his confidence never buckled, which is what makes him so special and capable of the improvements he’s shown throughout the season.

Even better, he’s past the point of being on pace of breaking the rookie record for made three’s in a season. Recall that Donovan Mitchell hit 187 five seasons ago; Keegan Murray now sits at 172 with 11 games left.

So long as an injury or anything like that occurs, it’s practically a sure thing that Keegan Murray walks away with the record, which, along with a playoff berth, will be a shining gem in this crown of a rookie year.

Kessler Edwards is a stopper

It was not a great offensive game for Kessler Edwards, and with Keegan Murray’s hot shooting, there wasn’t a lot of Kessler Edwards out there near the end of the game.

Perhaps there should have been more of him.

There were so many points in his 19 minutes of play where his defense created a stop, which is exactly what he’s shown he’s capable of. His ability to use his length and strength to stay in front of guys and simply make things difficult is impossible to discount.

There were a few moments of nice ball pressure from De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell, plus Malik Monk had some solid defensive moments, but it felt like many of the good defensive stances were due to Kessler Edwards’ presence. After all, he did post a +16.

It is fair to say that his mere 6 points on offense was something to keep in mind as to why he played just 19 minutes, but also know that he’s proven to be a high-effort guy on the offensive glass, finishing with one board on that end and nearly coming up with a second.

But again, it’s that defense where he makes his biggest impact, and it’s defense where Sacramento needs the biggest impact. Kessler Edwards has simply been a hell of a find by Monte McNair and the front office.

An almost perfect trip, but a daunting task awaits

Even as Sacramento lost this game, they still went 3-1 on their road trip, continuing to be one of the very best road teams in the league.

Remarkably, this was also the first road loss since the all-star break. It was back on Valentine’s Day in Phoenix the last time they fell short on their opponent’s floor.

Not to be too optimistic, but it takes a lot to make that kind of rally happen on the road, so that proved a lot. 

The only issue now comes to what happens on the second of the back-to-back. It’ll be the first game back at home, after coming in late from Salt Lake City, and against one of the best teams in the league after exerting a lot of energy.

Going forward

On a quick turnaround, the Kings come back home to play the Celtics tonight to close out the back-to-back.

Boston has the second best record in the NBA. After losing four of five games at the end of last month, they’ve since gone 5-7. The game will be the last of the Celtics’ six-game road trip while it will be the Kings’ first game back at home.

The Kings visited Boston in November and got smacked around later in the game, so they’ll look to even the score.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
2 months ago

Can’t be disappointed with the odd bad game here and there. First road loss since the break is awesome! Probably didn’t help they played 5 games in 7 days, in 4 different time zones either…that’s enough to mess anybody up! lol The officiating wasn’t too great but what else is new? And credit the zone D Hardy was using, really messed the Kings up and what they were trying to do.