Kings Continue to Respond, But Also Continue Exhibiting Defensive Inconsistency in Win Over Jazz

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 6: Matthew Dellavedova #8 of the Sacramento Kings looks on during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on March 6, 2023 at Golden 1 Center 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 Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Kings cut their magic number to just 1 after securing the 3-1 season series over the Jazz after prevailing over Utah’s non-stop efforts by a score of 121-113.

In terms of starting the game, Sacramento did a far better in this second of their back-to-back compared to the previous night. However, in similar fashion to the first one, they came out of halftime with a heavy foot on the gas and won the turnover differential (8-16). Nevertheless, Utah was a nuisance, utilizing their size and motions to score 70 points inside in addition to 17 second chance points.

In his second game since returning from a leg injury, Kevin Huerter again lead his team in scoring with 27 in addition to 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Domantas Sabonis scored 16 with 15 boards (6 of them on the offensive glass) and 7 assists, Keegan Murray hit 6 three’s for 22 points, and Harrison Barnes had a nice second half to finish with 18 points. Making the start, Davion Mitchell added 11 points to his typical defensive impact.

De’Aaron Fox, who suffered a hamstring injury the night prior against Phoenix, did not play.

Walker Kessler was a complete boogey man against the Kings, scoring 31 points on 14 of 16 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds as his team was once again without Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton. The other tower for the Jazz, Kelly Olynyk, put up 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists. Rookie Ochai Agbaji looked solid again with 20 points, Kris Dunn added 12, and Jarrell Brantley went 3 of 5 from deep for 13.

The game had plenty of good (responsiveness) and plenty of bad (defensive inconsistency), but it is notable that Sac got some critical stops late to hold on. As much as they let the opponent get back in it or as much as they traded blows for periods, the Kings’ commanding runs and late effort won this game and demonstrated their superiority.

“You like to see us respond the way that we need to to get a win, but it’s about trying to find some way to be consistent a little closer to 48 minutes than what we’ve done,” Mike Brown described of his team’s performance after the game. “And yes, the league is great … but our goals are big and the way that we’re playing at times is going to be hard to sustain in the playoffs if we can’t find some level of consistency, especially defensively.”

So the Kings won and the Clippers lost to the Pelicans, but Phoenix beat Philadelphia. Thus the clinch did not happen, but Sacramento grew closer. Sac is 1.5 games behind the Grizzlies for second place and still have a 6 game cushion between them and the Suns in fourth place.

Game summary (takeaways below)

The game started sort of slow, which allowed Utah to get some good looks inside, but once things picked up, the Kings began to climb ahead; with stops came pace, which manifested itself mostly in the half court. The shots neglected to fall for a stretch, but Sac’s defense looked spry. And Keegan Murray’s three-point shooting (4 of 5 in the first quarter) provided a discernible lift. The Jazz managed a 7-2 run to end the period with some nice rim running by Walker Kessler. but Sacramento lead 32-26 after one.

Utah began the second on a 16-5 run, gaining the lead by disrupting Sacramento with their zone defense. The Kings put together some stops and hit some three’s to regain the lead for a moment, but the contest became a close, back and forth one as Sac’s offense found themselves riding through the mud the Jazz’s zone D was forming without salvation from beyond the arc. Also an issue was the size Will Hardy was throwing out there, which exacerbated their good looks going to the rim. The Kings trailed 55-61 after losing the second period 23-35.

There were still a few residual defensive issues to start the third, but the Kings offense was utilizing paint touches and passing far better, beginning the second half on an incredible 25-10 run in its first six minutes. The Jazz responded with some good looks, but Sac’s offense was on a smooth and prolonged roll. Plus, Kessler Edwards provided some nice defense to close the period. After a 35-17 quarter, Sac lead 90-78 at the end of three.

To begin the fourth, the Kings could not string together stops and Malik Monk was ejected. The two squads essentially traded buckets. If anyone was getting stops, it was Utah while Sacramento’s defensive effort ran into some of the typical issues seen throughout the game (e.g. Walker Kessler’s rim runs, other inside scores, etc.). But down the stretch, the Kings got some critical stops and maintained their hold on the victory in spite of another 35-point quarter for the Jazz.

The difference: the responsiveness

After a horrible first quarter last week in Salt Lake City, the Kings responded with an excellent first period performance. And after a rough defensive second period, they came out of halftime with a renewed sense of purpose.

On the notion of that third quarter—a period Sac won 35-17—Mike Brown said that moment was the biggest catalyst to the victory.

What makes this team so responsive?

Coach Brown has done a ton to instill accountability and a desire to do the right thing, but he wouldn’t take any credit.

“I’m really not telling these guys anything magical in the back,” Mike Brown admitted when asked by James Ham about the ability for this team to make adjustments to their energy. “I’m telling them factually what’s happening out on the floor. And when they hear that, their sense of urgency seems to increase, and it shows with the production we’re getting out on the floor, especially the way we fly around defensively and then get out in transition and run.”

Coach Brown has often described how adjustments and shifts in vigor need to come from within, but adds that it needs to be hammered down further for it to be second nature.

“That’s something that we have to try to bottle up,” he continued after the win. “Again, (if) we can do it 30, 35 minutes a game, we’d be really freaking good, and I keep telling out guys that. It’s there.”

They proved to come out with the requisite response yet again, but responsiveness is only as big of a necessity when inconsistency is regularly exhibited. Which brings up another note…

…The defensive inconsistency remains an issue

Postgame, it did not take much waiting around to hear a familiar message from head coach Mike Brown.

“We’ve shown that we can score night in and night out, and now we can’t make the mental mistakes or we cannot not execute the right way defensively,” he noted before highlighting a key point. “And then we have to play with a sense of physicality that we don’t always play with until we get a little desperate.”

70 paint points allowed is never good and doing so is detrimental to any team’s chances of winning a game. There were too many times where the typical stuff happens—i.e. blow-by’s and poor weak side defense—that allows easy paint scores for Utah.

The Jazz also utilized their size (they start Kessler and Olynyk together and used both Udoka Azubuike and old friend Damian Jones) to their advantage at many points. On the very first play of the game, Utah was able to draw up a lob to Walker Kessler. Even if guys made the right switch, as Harrison Barnes did here, the size advantage tipped the balance. Plus, it worked to their advantage on the offensive glass.

With that and the addition of some poor transition defense, Walker Kessler got his career high in points with 31 of them. In addition to everything else, his ability to rim run unchecked drove Mike Brown crazy while at the same time earning him praise from the likely Coach of the Year.

“Walker Kessler did a great job,” coach Brown said. “That dude just ran from the front of the rim on one end to the front of the rim on the other end, and he did a great job. We didn’t put a body on him early enough and he capitalized with a lot of lob dunks on that back side.”

The Kings managed to be responsive and flip a switch at various critical moments, but their inconsistency on defense might be the biggest takeaway from this game, especially with the playoffs not far away.

Dellavedova doubling down on his worth (yet again)

It’s clear what Matthew Dellavedova provides. As the third point guard on the team, he’s a fill-in-the-cracks option that serves as a uniformed member of the coaching staff. Moreover, he has championship experience and can uplift his teammates with meaningful encouragement.

On Saturday night, he was more than a fill-in-the-cracks kind of guy, he provided 19 minutes of critical play. 

“Delly was huge on both ends of the floor,” coach Brown said of his de facto player coach. “His leadership was big, he got the Defensive Player of the Game chain and it was well deserved, but his impact tonight with Foxy (out) — the combination of Davion and Delly was instrumental in us getting the win.”

Offensively, Dellavedova scored 5 points on 2 of 5 and 1 of 3 from deep to go along with a pair each of rebounds and assists. He continued to show adequate understanding of how to be the head of the snake on offense while also providing nice off ball awareness, such as on this backside cut.

But it was his defensive efforts that stood out the most, which is why he was awarded with the DPOG chain.

Not only is he a good communicator—a vital component in order to perform cohesively on the defensive end—he remained highly active as he did by tipping away and stealing an inbounds pass in the second period.

More impressive was his on-ball defense. Here, he forced Kris Dunn into a turnover by staying in front of him and standing strong with high hands. There were two instances where he played nice defense on penetrators, backpedaling expertly and keeping his hands out only to be hit with a foul whistle. On the second such instance, coach Brown actually challenged it, and though it was unsuccessful, it was clear what sort of impact he made on that end.

He—like so many other players in various instances this season—remained prepared and ready to go, and that’s an embodiment of what is needed when the playoffs arrive.

“We got a deep roster and hopefully we can make a deep playoff run, and it’s a matter of everyone staying ready because you never know when your number’s going to be called,” Dellavedova explained postgame.

Davion Mitchell had a terrific game on both ends

Asked about winning the DPOG chain, Matthew Dellavedova could not avoid highlighting the season-long defensive efforts of his teammate.

“I definitely wanted to try and win (the chain) once during the year, but Davion’s been doing such a great job, it’s almost his chain,” the vet said when asked what it’s like to be bestowed those honors.

As Mike Brown had said, it was both Mitchell and Dellavedova, in the absence of De’Aaron Fox that made all the difference in this one.

Davion Mitchell easily could have won the chain, which is probably a matter of fact every time the Kings win. 

Before this game could turn two minutes old, Mitchell drew a charging foul, making an quick and decisive rotation in front of the driving Simone Fontecchio. 

Coming into this game Talen Horton-Tucker was averaging 16.0 points per game in the month of March, but he was held to 9 points, mostly due to Davion’s defensive assault which gave Utah’s point guard little breathing room. Mitchell forced him into tough shots as well as a turnover. His defense forces offensive players to make incredibly difficult looks, and sometimes they managed, but often times, Off Night was too much.

Overall, Mitchell lead the activity on the defensive end, making big plays as the game wore on towards the end.

On the other side of the ball, he scored 11 points. While it may sound like a bad thing that he went 0 for 6 from three, here’s a positive outlook on that. Frequently, viewers will hear about how when Mitchell knocks down his first or first couple shots, then it’s a good sign for his night offensively in terms of confidence.

Going 0 of 6 from deep can only be a bad thing if he allows it to dictate his night, and he didn’t. Mitchell did other things than just letting open looks from the outside fly. He got inside to score, to pass out to teammates, and did so to continue being an active member of the offense all night.

In short, in addition to the typical defense, it was a nice sign to see Davion Mitchell make an offensive impact without relying on his three-pointers.

Murray continues to close in on history, but not safe from honest critiques

After hitting 5 the night before to get him within 9 made three’s, Keegan Murray hit 6 of 12 from deep on Saturday to pull within 3 of Donovan Mitchell’s record of 187 made back in 2017-18. 

“I don’t know if Keegan even knows he’s that close,” Dellavedova said of his teammate with a smile.

Asked about Delly’s comment, Murray corrected the record, saying that he was informed by his girlfriend. And the media was sure to let him know he was just 3 three’s away.

So just about everyone sure as hell knows.

“Keegan shot the mess out of the ball tonight,” Mike Brown said of his rookie after the win, commending his lethal shooting and the fact that the rookie three point record is just about his for the taking.

However, he—as he has at various points this season—pivoted to make one constructive criticism.

“He’s gotta keep shooting the ball, but then again, he’s also got to try and rebound better,” Brown added. “We can’t have him, at 6’8″, get 2 rebounds in a game, especially a game where the team has the size that Utah has. He’s gotta get back there in the mix, and he’s gotta come up with those rebounds.”

Still, don’t lose sight of his excitement and defense of his rookie.

“If he breaks that (rookie three-point) record and he’s not first team all-rookie, especially with our team record, then all of this is bullshit in my opinion because he deserves it,” Brown said later in his presser. “That record is monumental, in my opinion, when it comes to rookies.”

Going forward

Well, that’s it for back-to-back’s for the next week.

The Kings finish out their four-game home stand with the visiting Timberwolves. This will be the fourth and final matchup with this team. Recall that Minnesota actually has a 2-1 edge thus far in the season series. In January, the squads split the two games played up in Minneapolis, and more recently, Anthony Edwards lead his team to a road win at The Golden 1 Center earlier in the month.

Thinking about that recent contest—which, unlike the previous two games, featured the post-deadline T-Wolves—the Kings struggled due to a lack of physicality on defense. It was the second of a back-to-back, so maybe, this time around, the defensive effort will be locked in out of the gate. 

Plus, remember that Mike Brown used a “mid-game adjustment” that brought Kessler Edwards out—after giving PJ Dozier a shot—to provide a different look on Anthony Edwards. That adjustment came past the midway point of the third quarter. This time around, there will be no hesitation to put Edwards on Edwards if Minnesota’s iteration begins to show signs of smoke.

Sacramento will be looking to make it a 3-1 trip before heading off to Portland to play two up there in three nights.

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Dan Smith
Dan Smith
2 months ago

Big time get back game against the Jazz, really brought the effort in most phases against the Jazz except for the D. Excluding Delly, Davion & Kessler did, lol. The Kings have been so good with outside shooting these past couple, it would take them standing at the other end of the court on defense for them to lose. Congrats to Murray, really hope he breaks the record against Minny when they also can possibly clinch. That game is gonna be a big one! Still agree with Brown’s assessment though, someone has to hit the boards more other than Domas, and the rookie really has to focus his efforts there more. Let’s go Sacto!