Sacramento avoided losing three straight while also cutting their magic number down to two, beating Phoenix 135-127 with an imposing second half response and finish to amend a ghastly defensive effort in the first half.
The Kings gave up 42 paint points through the first two quarters, but the Suns managed to finish with only 56. They also did a better job of adjusting their attention to Phoenix’s offensive rebounding and second points. Through it all, Sac committed only 4 turnovers, and 3 of them came in the first quarter; off of their opponent’s 12 turnovers, they scored 19 points off.
In his first game back from his leg injury, Kevin Huerter exploded after a short adjustment period in the first half, finishing with 29 points and 9 rebounds. Domantas Sabonis put up 27 points with 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Harrison Barnes threw up 23—11 of them came in the fourth period—and Keegan Murray added 13 points. And De’Aaron Fox scored 19 points in twenty-one minutes before leaving in the third period with hamstring soreness.
The Suns were again without Deandre Ayton in the middle. Devin Booker had his 32 points and Chris Paul finished with 15 points and 13 assists. Their bench was great for them (68-24 in bench points) as Jock Landale put up 17 points, T.J. Warren had 15, but most impressive was Terrence Ross’s whopping 30 points in reserve.
The Suns continue their recent rough slide and the Kings once again made adjustments at halftime to mend the defensive issues, exhibiting the “fight in them” that Mike Brown described the day before after practice.
With this result, not only did Sac even the season series with the Suns, the Kings remain 2 games behind Memphis for the second spot in the conference, but the Suns are now a half game below the Clippers, who sit in fourth place in between Sacramento and Phoenix. In addition to that, the Warriors (sixth place) and the Lakers (now eighth place) won their respective contests.
Game summary (takeaways below)
Keegan Murray began guarding Devin Booker, but picked up two quick fouls, bringing Kessler Edwards into the game, whose activity and length made a momentary difference on defense. The Kings were doing a nice job getting inside with the absence of Ayton, but on the other end they did not protect inside in their own right. Add in some turnovers, some Suns second chance opportunities as well as free throw attempts, and Phoenix went on a 14-4 run. The Kings trailed 24-30 after the first.
The Suns kept up their effective attack while the Kings finally got a trip to the free throw line, their first trip of the game. Sacramento’s offense really looked like it hit a wall as the Suns were utilizing passes to get Jock Landale a pile of good looks (14 points in the first half), which nullified the potential advantage gained with Booker on the bench. It was more of the same—Phoenix had 42 paint points after two—as the half came to an end, but there were signs of a rhythm being formed for the Kings. They were behind at halftime, 56-67.
The activity and ball pressure on the Suns was much better, mostly due to De’Aaron Fox, and the offense was treading along smoothly. Soon enough, the lead Phoenix had built collapsed and their frustration was evident. And with a 28-5 run, propelled by better defense (only 4 paint points for Phoenix) as well as Kevin Huerter, the Kings formed a double-digit lead of their own. Headed into the fourth, Sac lead 101-93 after winning the period 45-26.
The second unit guys kept up the energetic play, getting contributions from Trey Lyles and Chimezie Metu. The Kings had a ten-point lead when both team’s best players as the punches went back and forth. Sac’s lead was seven points at the two-minute mark, but Booker cut it to four points with an and-one finish. But with Phoenix over the limit, the Kings managed to hold things down with free throws and some stops.
Response out of halftime
At halftime, it seemed like the only positive takeaway for Sacramento was that at the end of the second quarter, it appeared their offense was finally gaining traction. However, in terms of their defense, they looked like there was no answer that could rescue them.
Phoenix scored 67 points in the first half on 15 second chance points and 42 paint points with just 4 turnovers committed.
Their ability to generate open looks inside with their pick-and-roll and the attention some of their stars garner, making guys like Jock Landale look like offensive juggernauts. With shooters in the corners, there was some hesitancy for guys to step into the paint and defend shots. And the activity, while good at times, could have used some improvement.
Again, the defensive effort after two days of rest was looking bleak.
But how many times have the Kings gone into halftime with defensive issues only for an adjustment or two to be made that totally flips the script?
Friday night was more of that.
Coach Mike Brown said his guys “were more aware of what (the Suns) were doing in the paint” out of halftime.
“We didn’t have as many blow-by’s or middle drives, and then we handled the pick-and-roll in the pocket a little bit better in the second half,” Brown added, saying later that his players’ “urgency” was far better.
By the end of the contest, Phoenix managed to score an additional 2 second chance points and were limited to 14 second half paint points. And outside of Terrence Ross (6 of 10 from deep), there was no outside shooter to wreak havoc.
After committing two early fouls that sent him to the bench, Keegan Murray nevertheless returned to hit his shots (more on that in a second) and attack his defensive assignment without being deterred.
Moreover, the activity rose immensely. The Suns, again, had committed only 4 turnovers through quarters one and two, but by the end of the game, the number was up to 12 as the Kings utilized high hands and sharp rotations.
“That third quarter was big,” Kevin Huerter imparted after the win. “It started, we got stops, (which) allowed us to get out in transition. And as I said on the air, it just felt like, that first half, the energy just kind of felt weird. Like that first quarter, a little bit that second quarter, we were playing their game, we were playing a little too slow, the half court game couldn’t really … get going and so we just we had to pick up the pace, continue to try to move the ball, look for better looks.”
Count this as yet another instance of applying second half adjustments—particularly on the defensive end—in order to shift the tide for the second half. It’s yet another display of their responsive, never-quit approach.
Still hard to ignore: it was far from the full 48 minutes
However, while it’s an excellent thing to bounce back, adjust, and then surge ahead, the question of sustaining that blueprint in the playoffs becomes—or better yet, remains—a poignant question.
Think of games like the first of two against Dallas in February or the recent game in Utah; a slow start can do a team in, and no matter ho good their second half effort is.
All season long, Mike Brown has noted that one of the biggest keys to winning in this league—and winning at a high level—is playing hard and soundly for as close to 48 minutes as possible.
Of the rotational players, Harrison Barnes has the most playoff experience. Hell, he’s a champion. As he said after Thursday’s practice, “for us, it’s about starting games the right way.” He added that “at this point in the season, it’s really just about, like I said, putting together complete games.”
Finding different ways to win, having superstars like Fox and Sabonis, and being one of the best offenses ever will certainly help, but the margin of error at that stage is so thin that that is merely half the battle.
Think about it this way, Phoenix was without two of their best players (Durant and Ayton) and have been scuffling. The scuffling could haunt them come playoff time, but their guys will be out there.
Does this kind of rally happen if the Suns are close to full strength?
It’s hard to say either way, but the teams that have either tasted championship champagne or who have come close know that it’s about putting together as close to a complete game as possible.
Huerter back and burnin’
After missing three games with his right popliteus strain, Kevin Huerter made an explosive return to the court. On the night, he scored 29 points on 10 of 18 from the field, including 6 of 12 from beyond the arc, to go along with 9 rebounds and 5 assists.
Without his scoring punch, it feels unlikely that the Kings could have come out on top in this one.
He started slow, looking a little out of rhythm and, for the moment, a little depleted in the conditioning department. He began the game 0 for 3, which included an 0 for 2 start from deep.
However, with about ninety seconds left in the second quarter, he hit his first field goal, following it up with a three and another two-point make, scoring the team’s final 7 points going into halftime.
When the Kings offense appeared to be gaining a flow near the end of the first half, it seemed to coincide with some newfound comfort for Huerter. That correlation matched up in the second half when he scored an additional 22 points on 7 of 12 from the field and 5 of 9 from deep.
“Domas was talking to me over the course of the game, (I was) just continuously trying to stay aggressive, and got hot in that third quarter, ” Huerter said postgame.
More than just scoring, he neared a double-double with 9 rebounds—some of them critical—as well as 5 assists (over the last month, he’s had four games with 5 or more assists). And one of his biggest three’s came off of an excellent defensive play.
“We’ve had a couple of discussions during the course of the year because there were times where he wasn’t on the floor at the end of games,” coach Brown said when asked about Huerter’s contributions outside of scoring. “And I told him, obviously, we know he can shoot and play-make, but we need him and Malik and the rest of our guards to get in there and mix it up and come up with some rebounds.”
Seeing Huerter hop back on the wagon with such flare was a great sign for the Kings, who got to see some nice things from Kessler Edwards in the starting five, but who ultimately benefit from the terrific and expanding impact of the red headed sharpshooter.
Murray is 9 made three’s away from the record
Keegan Murray may have gone to the bench early after committing two early fouls—and, frankly, not looking great on Booker to start—but the rookie never let that disrupt his offensive connection to the bottom of the net.
Murray’s 5 of 7 from the field was buttressed by his 3 of 4 from three land, which not only helped his team, but which also got him to within 9 three’s of Donovan Mitchell’s rookie record, and with 9 games to go for Sacramento.
Mitchell hit 187 back in 2017-18. Murray sits behind him as well as Damian Lillard (185 made in 2012-13) with his 178 made so far this season. As noted many times before and from many places, barring injury or catastrophe, the rookie three-point record is Keegan Murray’s for the taking.
Another interesting nugget is looking at the difference in efficiency between Mitchell and Murray as pointed out by Will Z. Stats.
After putting up 19 points in 21 minutes of play, De’Aaron Fox left the game in the third quarter, headed to the locker room. He never returned to action, being ruled out for the remainder of it with right hamstring soreness.
As everyone knows, his team managed to secure the victory without the most clutch player in the league.
Earlier in the month, Fox missed a game against the Pelicans due to a hamstring issue, but that was on the left side. Coach Brown said at the time that it was his call to sit the star out due to the sensitivity of hamstrings.
Mike Brown could not provide an update after the game, but said GM Monte McNair had let him know that Fox was fighting to get back on the floor.
With the second of a back-to-back scheduled for Saturday night, fans will await further updates on their all-star point guard.
The second of the home back-to-back features the Jazz coming to town.
Just last week, the Kings got off to a slow start in Utah, rallied back, but ultimately fell at the hands of their zone look and interior defense. Will Hardy’s team was without three of their best players. So Sacramento will look to both get back at them and take the season series 3-1 as they have the chance to do.
Since last Sunday’s loss in Salt Lake City, the Jazz have lost to the Trailblazers and, more recently, to the Bucks.
Lauri Markkanen missed the previous matchup between the two teams and missed Friday’s contest against Milwaukee as he is dealing with a hand injury. It’s not a serious injury as indicated by a recent X-ray, but it’s unclear as of now whether he’ll play Saturday night at The Golden 1 Center.
Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton also missed the previous Jazz-Kings game. Clarkson has not played in the last two with a finger injury, and Sexton’s hamstring injury remains a question mark.