Once More, Celtics Show How Much Goes Into Being a Contender

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 21: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics shoots over Davion Mitchell #15 of the Sacramento Kings in the first half at Golden 1 Center on March 21, 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)

In a highly anticipated matchup, the Kings could not run with the Celtics for the whole race, dropping the contest—the second of a back-to-back—by a score of 109-132.

It was a fast-paced game of runs that Boston was able to create distance in. Sacramento committed 14 turnovers to their opponent’s 5, allowing 21 points off of them. The Celtics dominated in paint points (56 to Sac’s 38), forcing the Kings to rely on a lot of jump shots; they got off just 28 attempts in the paint while Boston had 40 attempts inside. Additionally, Boston had 17 second chance points to Sac’s 5.

For Sacramento, nobody really managed to take over offensively. Domantas Sabonis did have a triple-double—his twelfth of the year, a career high—on 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists. De’Aaron Fox scored 18 points on just 11 field goal attempts, Keegan Murray put up 15, and Harrison Barnes was quiet aside from the third quarter, finishing with 11 points. Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis provided some scoring off the bench with 13 and 12 points respectively. (With the playoffs approaching, the Kings were cautious with Kevin Huerter, who missed his third straight game.)

Boston’s collection of talent came to play. Jayson Tatum put up 36 points with 8 rebounds and Jaylen Brown went 4 of 7 from three for 27 points. Derrick White had a double-double with a great shooting night, scoring 20 with 10 assists. Also, Marcus Smart scored 17 with 7 assists and Al Horford scored 11 on 3 of 5 from deep. As a team, the Celtics went 18 of 44 (40.9%) from beyond the arc.

It felt a lot like the first meeting between these two teams in that Sac kept in stride to exchange runs with Boston for about two and a half quarters, but they ultimately fell short as the Celtics were absolutely merciless, closing every quarter in a strong manner and making the Kings pay for any mistakes they made.

“Easy assessment,” Mike Brown said to begin his postgame remarks. “They kicked our behinds, starting with me. We all got our behinds kicked. There’s nothing tricky or hidden behind what I’m saying — they switched everything and turned us over.”

With this loss, the Kings sink a half game further behind the Grizzlies for that second spot in the Western Conference. Memphis has won their last three and play again Wednesday night against the Rockets. However, the Kings still have a four and a half game cushion over the fourth place Suns, who they’ll play next come this Friday night. 

Game summary (takeaways below)

Sacramento got off to a 5 of 7 start from three with Sabonis also rolling early (9 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in quarter number-one). However, while Boston does possess some exceptional offensive talent themselves, they did benefit from some early mistakes by the Kings defense. They eventually got a chain of stops to form a nice lead, but Tatum and company hit some shots that kept the game close. Sac lead 32-30 after one.

De’Aaron Fox came out in the second with a nice show of aggression, getting to the line and even adding to his hot three-point shooting. Jaylen Brown hit some big shots as Boston benefitted from some defensive lapses and Kings turnovers. But with Sabonis back on the floor and Davion Mitchell finding success on offense, the Kings began to surge again with a 10-3 run. Tatum, Brown, and Boston’s offensive rebounds (10 second chance points in the second) closed the quarter on 13-2 run to secure a 6-point lead at the half.

The Kings came out of halftime ready to roll with Boston, but the Celtics went on a scoring run that gave them a double digit lead as they capitalized on Sacramento’s mistakes. And while Boston came up with a few stops, the Kings really struggled there. The lack of fouls going Sac’s way had the team up in arms all quarter. Boston looked far more rigid in their quest for a win to close the third, yet again closing a period strong as Sac trailed 85-100 after three.

The start of the fourth quarter was not a good one for Sacramento with a pair of turnovers in less than two minutes. With the help of some improved defensive activity, the Kings generated a 10-2 run. And with 5 fouls early for the Celtics, Sac was in the bonus at the seven and a half minute mark. However, the free throws were not falling (66.7% by the end of the game), and last year’s Eastern Conference champs were unyielding, going on a 9-0 run as jump shots refused to fall for the Kings. With about five minutes left, Mike Brown pulled his primary players, as acceptance of the loss set in.

Felt like November’s game in Boston

As noted above, the Kings were doing a good job of maintaining the necessary level of play to run with the Celtics, but at a certain point their tire blew and it was clear the game was destined to go Boston’s way, typically around some time in the middle of the third period.

Back in November, it was more of a sudden collapse, whereas there were a few final pulsations of life from the Kings on Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to walk away from both of those games and avoid the conclusion that the Celtics run a far tighter operation than the Kings. A lot of that has to do with experience and the fact that they’ve done a terrific job of maintaining an excellent and versatile roster.

The Kings have definitely grown by leaps and bounds since November, but while the chasm between them and the Celtics is smaller, it’s still a chasm.

But it’s possible to look at it from another direction. Both games against Boston were against a team that has tremendous talent and experience, but both games also came at a point where the Kings were low on gas.

Around Thanksgiving time, the Kings made their first considerable trip out east, playing in Memphis and Atlanta in a back-to-back before going into Boston after a day of rest. Combining the first real trip of the season with a three games in four nights scenario and the festive holiday week, and it’s not crazy to point to some low energy.

Similarly, this game was the first one back at home after a four-game road trip. Worse, it came as the second of a back-to-back where they played out in Salt Lake City the night before. So coming off a roadie, playing a back-to-back, and having to play the always tricky first game at home after a trip also raise a similar point.

In both instances against the Celtics, the scheduling did not allow for the optimal amount of energy output from the Kings.

That’s not an excuse because Boston is good enough to beat the Kings on adequate rest, but it does factor in. Also, from an objective or outside standpoint, it’s a shame because a better rested Kings team would have made for a far more entertaining matchup from start to finish.

Sac’s defense was far from good

There was something missing defensively.

“We couldn’t turn them over. Our hands weren’t as active,” Mike Brown described after the loss. “We challenged the guys to get twenty-five deflections with some activity with our hands and we didn’t we didn’t come close.”

Overall, activity and physicality were missing.

In the first quarter, Boston’s keen ability to stretch the floor made every mistake stand out, and because the Kings defense struggled to contain the dribble, the Celtics were able to diversify their attack. Jayson Tatum is hard to guard, but there was not much defensive physicality on the part of Sacramento, and the threat of an outside made it worse, regardless of the penetrating Celtic. Making matters worse, the transition defense was not sharp, either lacking that necessary physical effort or lacking any form of an effort.

Into the second period and the Celtics found no trouble getting downhill against the Kings. Also, their two superstars forced so many crashes, which created open, easy shots, especially with that lax presence inside. And throw a high ball screen at Tatum’s defender and all of a sudden Sabonis was on an island with one of the finest players in the league. Ending the half, Tatum proved how unstoppable he is in one-on-one situations if nobody is going to provide help.

Out of halftime, the Kings were allowing some easy looks from deep. Here, nobody is even near Jaylen Brown as a complete fog seemed to cloud the defensive awareness of the Kings. And here, Marcus Smart drove deep into the paint against Keegan Murray, and because that had been a theme all night, the weak side defense could not afford to give any cushion that would allow easy dunks or layups, but then Derrick White was similarly wide open on the wing. (Note also that against the Jazz on Monday, Mike Brown did not like that his weak side defense gave too much cushion in terms of its help). 

Past the halfway point of the third period—around the time Boston really began to pull away—this play illustrates the lack of urgency on the defensive end as the Celtics utilized nice pace to essentially force a 5-on-4 scenario that hooked Robert Williams up with a layup.

The Kings brought a last ditch effort into the fourth, utilizing some nice activity, but it did not take long for the Celtics to get back to spreading things out in order to cut deep into the paint.

…Also, the free throw shooting was low again

The lack of presence and physicality on defense is one sign of a team not really being all the way there, and so does free throw shooting.

On the night, the Kings hit just 14 of their 21 attempts at the free throw line to earn a 66.7% clip from the charity stripe. 

It was the second time in the last three games where the team shot below 70% from the line. Recall that they shot a horrid 60.9% in Washington after going 14 for 23 from the line. But they played well against the Wizards, never allowing the poor performance at the line to endanger their chances of winning.

Going 66.7% from the line against the Celtics was not the reason they lost, but it could be a sign that the burden before them was too heavy after such a busy stretch of games—and traveling—in a short span of time.

Coach Brown’s thoughts on the offensive night against Boston’s defense

The Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman asked Mike Brown about the switch-everything defense of the Celtics and how to counter that. The head coach’s response was thoughtful and did a nice job of illustrating the issues that caused his team to score just 109 points.

“You gotta play with a pace in the half court,” Brown responded. “Like you you gotta sprint out in the screen sometimes and slip to the rim to cause a chain reaction. Your cuts have to be extremely hard. The ball has to be moved and (crisply), and and if you catch the ball and somebody’s closing out to you, you can’t hesitate. We have a we had so many times where we’ve all got swung after they’re switching, and even if they messed it up a little bit, when you hold it all you’re doing is letting them get back in front. 

“And then you gotta shoot the ball when you’re open,” he continued. “There were a couple of times we were wide open and we dribbled into traffic. One of the things our guys are going to have to understand is, come playoff time, the best shot’s an open shot because those are going to be hard to come by and if we keep passing up open shots and driving in the traffic and trying to make a player force the action, we’re going to be in trouble. 

“But they’re switching really bothered us. We couldn’t score inside, we couldn’t score outside really, and you’re gonna have to play with some pace and slip to the rim to put some pressure on the rim to cause the defense to collapse a little bit whether it’s by a drive or, like I said, just a cut, and then that’s when you can get a good look with with a spray three or a snap drive trying to get to the rim because their defense isn’t really set.”

Interesting use of the bench

The switch-everything Boston Celtics put Mike Brown in a position where he could and probably felt he had to go in a different direction rotationally speaking.

The most striking evidence of this was the fact Chimezie Metu—a guy with a rotational role as the team’s backup center—did not enter the game until the remaining five minutes of garbage time.

In terms of guys used off the bench, the group was just four guys with Terence Davis, Davion Mitchell, and Malik Monk playing the bulk of the minutes. The closest thing to a center off the bench was Trey Lyles, who really did not have his best game.

Aside from a nice block and some efforts on the glass, Lyles committed a couple turnovers in a short span and got off only one shot, a three that he missed. In total, he played about 10 minutes.

Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis—as will be touched upon below—had nice offensive nights, but Malik Monk most certainly did not, having his worst performance since the all-star break with a 1 for 7 night from the field (0 of 4 from three) for 6 points.

Overall, the bench did score 41 (compared to the 21 points from Boston’s bench), but outside of Mitchell, they could not present much resistance defensively.

Also a component in all of this was the fact that Kevin Huerter missed his third straight game, putting Kessler Edwards in the starting lineup and preventing the rotation from bringing its complete punch.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to condemn the bench when nobody in the starting lineup eclipsed the 20-point mark.

Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis

The only two Kings players that posted a positive +/- were Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis. Given their roles, the pair performed pretty well in this game, serving as some form of a silver lining.

Mitchell’s 13 points came off a 5 of 8 night from the field and a 3 of 5 effort from three. He dropped 10 of those points in the second quarter, hitting 4 field goals, including 2 three’s, and in that stretch his offensive output was vital as the scoring was not really coming from other places (22 second quarter points for the Kings).

But Davion did go scoreless in just five second half minutes. However, his offensive confidence over the last month or so has been pleasant, which bodes well come playoff time as it’s a perfect compliment to his tenacious defense.

“He’s probably the one guy that — especially these last couple of games — that has been as close to playing on both sides of the ball at the highest level on our team,” coach Brown said of Mitchell, adding that he likes how he’s developed and how he doesn’t back away from a challenge.

Terence Davis, on the other hand, put up 9 second half points on 3 of 4 shooting from beyond the arc. In the first half he had a made three, but his second half performance showed how valuable of a scorer he can be.

This was the second time in the last three games where Davis had at least twenty minutes of play time (the first being his 21-point game against the Wizards), and in both of those instances he hit at least 4 three’s, finding a little rhythm after falling out of the lineup slightly for the majority of the post all-star break stretch.

As Mark Jones noted in Monday’s game in Utah—and again in the garbage time period where he must have been grasping at straws for something to say—Matthew Dellavedova came to sit with Davis when the team was traveling so that he could impart some words of wise encouragement, which came ahead of his 21-point night. If he can continue staying positive and ready to go when needed, he can be a significant part of the effort in the playoffs.

Going forward

Sacramento gets two days off Wednesday and Thursday before being faced with another back-to-back. This time the pair of games will be at home, couched in the middle of this four-game home stand.

The first of the back-to-back will be the Phoneix Suns in the final meeting of the season with Monty Williams’ team. 

The Suns play Wednesday against the Lakers, but in their previous five games, they’ve gone 1-4, which includes their loss to the Kings a little more than a week ago.

Kevin Durant is still another week away from his next reevaluation on his ankle.

Sac has a chance to tie up the season series and add more to the buffer zone between the two squads in the standings.

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Kings Talk – A Cap City Crown Podcast on the Sacramento Kings

Kings Talk: Episode 77

On this week’s episode of Kings Talk presented by Cap City Crown, Tony and John discuss the In-Season tournament and Sacramento’s chances of making the knockout stage, Trey Lyles’ return and what that means to […]

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Dan Smith
8 months ago

Thanks for the great content as usual Tony, I’m always checking out as many ads as I can on the site. Trying to get some people to come over from STR as the site’s supposed to be going under soon. It’d be nice to have some more users and comments around here eh?