The Kings could not clinch their playoff berth in front of a feverish home crowd, struggling to get stops and play their preferred way, losing 115-119 to the visiting Timberwolves.
In an absolutely contentious fist fight, the glaring differential in defensive stops and three-point shooting tipped the scale in favor of Minnesota. The T-Wolves went 9 of 24 (37.5%) from three compared to Sac’s 5 of 27 (18.5%), and they had much more success on the other end of the floor even as the Kings won the paint points battle (60-54).
Sacramento’s superstars were doing their part as De’Aaron Fox, after a one game absence, put up 29 points with 6 assists and Domantas Sabonis scored 24 to go along with 10 rebounds. Harrison Barnes threw on a useful 19 points while Malik Monk scored 12 with 3 assists off the bench. And Kevin Huerter was the only Kings player to hit multiple three’s, but his foul trouble limited him to just 13 scored points.
Seven different players were in double figures for Minnesota. Jaden McDaniels got off to a hot start to finish with a team-high 20 points. Anthony Edwards scored 17 with 7 assists, Rudy Gobert had 16 with 16 boards, and Kyle Anderson had 15 points with 11 dimes. Also contributing was Mike Conley’s 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting, Naz Reid’s 18, and Jaylen Nowell’s 14.
In addition to their defensive struggles, the Kings could not push in the fast break outside of the second quarter, their best quarter. Minnesota held them to 9 fast break points, 7 of which came in the second, highlighting the correlation between stops and pace.
“I know against that particular team in the Timberwolves, we’re going to have to be more impactful defensively than we were tonight,” coach Mike Brown said postgame.
Given the point in the season and the circumstances of a potential clinch, the energy was ridiculously high in the building. While the Kings came up short, this provides a big lesson for what to expect in this period where the playoff atmosphere begins to take a firm grip.
With the Kings’ loss and wins for both the Suns and Clippers, the magic number remains at just one. Sacramento will be able to clinch with a win on Wednesday, similar to the situation coming into Monday night; plus both Phoenix and LA play Wednesday as well. Sac stands 5 games ahead of the fourth place Suns, but 2.5 behind Memphis.
Game summary (takeaways below)
In the first five minutes of the game, Minnesota dropped 10 quick paint points on the Kings. Jaden McDaniels got a lot of looks inside and even hit from the outside as he and the T-Wolves got off to a great start from both levels (54.2% from the field, 57.1% from three in the first quarter). Sacramento’s offense got off to nearly as slow of a start as their defense, but Harrison Barnes and De’Aaron Fox helped by getting inside in their own right. Even still, Sac trailed 25-34 after one.
The Kings were chipping away at Minnesota’s lead throughout the second, finding success with some zone defense and some pushes offensively. But the Timberwolves proved to be responsive, forcing turnovers to disrupt Sacramento. Fox, Domas, and company kept up their push, tying the game with a 10-2 run. In the final two minutes, it was a high-intensity, high-paced back and forth. Fox gave his team the lead going into the half, 58-57.
The energy remained at a heightened state out of halftime as the two teams traded punches. Kyle Anderson was hitting seemingly every look, but the Kings’ effort and passion produced some fiery plays. It was an absolute heavyweight battle, one with little defensive success as the force of each blow seemed intent on exceeding the previous one. The Timberwolves shot over 60% from the field in the third, but Sac limited it’s turnovers (1 in the third) as well as their opponent’s paint points (just 8) Going into the final period, Minnesota lead by a single point.
The T-Wolves were getting a nice set of looks inside again after the Kings did a good job in the third defending the paint. Meanwhile, several minutes into the fourth, Sac had just one field goal, a three in spite of the fact they were shooting a poor percentage from deep. Not long after a timeout, however, the Sabonis-Monk two-man game continued it’s assault inside. But Sacramento could not come up with stops; past the midway point of the fourth, Minnesota scored on six straight trips. The Timberwolves, on the other hand, got a few, creating the necessary separation.
It comes down to defense, it always does
The fact Sacramento went 5 of 27 from deep really kneecapped their ability to get a victory. Without that outside threat lurking in Minnesota’s mind, it forced the Kings to “wrestle” with the big, lengthy team, as Mike Brown put it.
But it comes down to defense as it so often does.
Also forcing them to “wrestle” with Minnesota was the fact that the defensive stops prevented the Kings from pushing the pace in transition. As noted above, they only managed to do that in the second period, the only period they won.
“I don’t think we played well defensively,” coach Brown said, noting that was the case aside from a few “spurts,” a nice microcosm for the season as a whole in terms of that end of the floor.
He went on to note that the tone was set very poorly by allowing Jaden McDaniels to get it going early in the game, which he attributes to instilling a sense of confidence in the opposition as a whole.
Continuing, he noted how that also contributed to stunting any ability to get out and run because every time McDaniels “touched it, he scored” in the first quarter.
“So having said that, we have to do a better job from the outset of trying to get stops against this team because if we don’t, we’re going to go against a set defense every time where their length is tough,” he explained.
Brenden Nunes kept the focus on that end of the floor, asking about the team’s physicality given the important rule of thumb–which has been hammered down continuously–that one has to defend physically, but without fouling.
“At the beginning of the game, we weren’t physical at all,” Brown described. “And like I said, it’s something that, across the board, we have to get more consistent with.”
He went on then to impart some specific analysis of what he’s seeing in terms of physicality, especially in the pick-and-roll:
“Even our pick-and-roll coverage — when you’re guarding the ball, you hear the call of where to send the ball and what we’re supposed to do is, when you hear the call, you’re supposed to one, two into the body and into the ball. And not many of our guys do that consistently — Davion (Mitchell) does and Davion’s an elite defender, but most times, we wait, we get hit, and then we’re chasing the ball downhill and it causes a domino effect, especially (with) how small we are at times on the back side.”
“So those are types of things that we’re going to have to do a better job of — is getting up in the ball with better ball pressure, being more physical, and not allowing any blow-by’s in order for us to be able to defend at a higher level.”
Minnesota would sure be a sticky playoff opponent
At this point, it is quite fun to imagine what the possible playoff matchups might bring. How teams size up against each other and what not is one of the special and more technical beauties of this game to consider.
However, on that note, it doesn’t seem like any Kings fan should want to see their team play the Timberwolves in the playoffs. Sac fell to them in the season series, 1-3.
Mike Brown kind of made that known.
“I feel like (Minnesota) defended us well throughout most of the year,” coach Brown said in response to a question about the possibility that the ability to clinch served as a distraction (a notion Brown rejected).
He went on to note that the one victory over them came in an overtime setting, which came to be because the Kings “went small” and had Trey Lyles “hit some three’s to get Rudy (Gobert) out of the paint.”
And then came the honest yet unavoidable admission.
“They’ve been a handful for us the entire season, so if we face them again, we’re going to have to try and figure something out and it’s going to have to be a more defensive oriented game because at the end of the day, they’re just going to push out on our guys when you got a three-time Defensive Player of the Year sitting in the paint, impacting you at the rim.”
In short, the length, athleticism, activity, and presence of the dynamic Gobert forms a challenge for the Kings offense.
But that’s not an admission that the Kings would lose. Rather, it’s an admission that facing Minnesota in a playoff series would require the ultimate response to a large challenge.
Fox and Sabonis
For the sake of a feel-good story, it’s a damn shame the Kings couldn’t clinch on Monday night. For one, they could have done so in front of so many fans who have lived through the period of “basketball hell” that existed for well over a decade and a half.
But also, they would have done so on the backs of their two best players, who combined for 53 points. Furthermore, it would have been secured against the same team that came to Sacramento over a year ago to face the Kings in the first game that the pairing of Fox and Sabonis were brought together.
The two all-stars and likely All-NBA names were magnificent. De’Aaron Fox, after returning from a one-game absence due to a minor right hamstring injury, carried the bulk of the offensive load while Domantas Sabonis went toe to toe with the adversity created by Rudy Gobert and company.
In the end–on an individual level–the two added to their season highlight reels.
Fox had a beautiful finish to end the second quarter as well as a huge and wonderfully instinctual block on Rudy Gobert in the third. Sabonis’s propensity to grab the board and take it the distance of the floor revealed itself in it’s most dangerous form on this and-one slam dunk, and he continued taking it to the rim with the use of his deft skill and movement.
Defense and three-point shooting aside, this game did demonstrate how much pull Sacramento’s superstars can bring when the games begin to melt together due to the friction of the fast pace and high-intensity of a playoff atmosphere. In such an environment, the play of a team’s best players can make a critical difference.
Harrison Barnes can be a life saver at any point in a ball game
Last week, Harrison Barnes had a pair of nice performances against the Suns and the Jazz in the home back-to-back, but his offensive production did not make itself known right away. Against Phoenix, he scored nearly half his points in the fourth quarter, and against Utah, after scoring 2 points in the first half, Barnes scored 16 in the second.
Against the Timberwolves on Monday, it was his efforts to get inside that arguably got the Kings on track offensively after some tough sailing in terms of field goal percentage in the initial portion of the first quarter. Playing all twelve minutes in the period, he put up 10 points on 4 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from the free throw line.
Barnes is the type of player where his offensive production does not need to be super high all the time, but he’s shown that when the chips are down, he can step up at any moment and get the team back on track, regardless of the juncture in the game.
The veteran with championship experience is showing his mettle in regards to being a stable presence, foreshadowing how important he’ll be come playoff basketball.
Len provided physicality in backup center minutes
In the previous game against the Jazz, Chimezie Metu was pulled early from his time in the backup center role, and in his place Richaun Holmes had his number called. Neither really stood out.
With the ability to get inside and thus create easy looks at the rim or create open spray three’s on the outside, Mike Brown was looking for physicality, which, regardless of the opponent, has been a characteristic the head coach is trying to instill as a habit in his team’s defense.
When the Kings lost the back-to-back in Utah and then at home versus the Celtics, a lack of physicality hurt them. When they had nice third quarter responses in the more recent back-to-back at home against the Suns and the Jazz, a huge reason behind it was a renewed awareness of the importance physicality holds.
And as the reader found above, it remained a topic of focus in Monday’s game as well.
So with physicality in mind, it’s not a complete surprise that coach Brown went to his largest tower in Alex Len. But given Len’s limited play this season overall, it was surprising that he went out there and made an impact without looking a step behind everyone else, which garners him some extra credit.
Len hadn’t really seen significant minutes since the single game Sabonis missed due to his thumb fracture in December in the first of two against Denver.
Fast forwarding to Monday night, he was adequate in his seven and a half minutes of play, scoring 4 points to go along with a pair each of rebounds and blocks.
Len showcased how his size contributed to Sacramento’s 19 second chance points on this put back. He also notably had a hustle moment (no clip available) where he and Trey Lyles went all-out diving on the floor for a loose ball; Len made a heads up timeout call, but the Timberwolves got their hands on the ball just in time to make it a jump-ball situation.
In the second half, Len’s presence inside alone disrupted Naz Reid’s layup attempt. Speaking of presence, he was able to disrupt Gobert on the glass every now and then, just making him work a little harder to secure a board. And in the span of less than a minute, he registered two blocks on two excellent defensive contests; the blocks barely matter as his ability to use his vertical size was enough to be a nuisance for any driving Timberwolf.
Now, will Len be the backup 5 going forward?
It’s not clear that anyone has claim on the spot right now, but Len should have a continued chance. Whether he can hold it down or not remains a question mark, but at the very least, when the matchups call for it, the veteran big has proven he can be a useful option.
Len will still have the burden of having to prove he can provide a similar impact against smaller opponents before he can be solidified as the everyday backup center, which frankly is not likely. Time will tell.
Nonetheless, Len provided an admirable effort and shows what being a professional is all about.
After down shooting night, Murray’s remains three away from history
Keegan Murray went just 1 of 6 from the outside. He remains three made three’s away from breaking Donovan Mitchell’s record of 187 in 79 games, but he did manage to tie Damian Lillard to slide into a tie for the second most (for now) at 185.
Murray’s ability to never go through a prolonged slide since his November slump–which, if one recalls, was centered mostly around an off-court, family matter–keeps the hope high that he’ll get it done up in Portland where the Kings will play two. Buttressing that idea is the efficiency with which the rookie is shooting the ball, shooting 40.7% from three in just 73 games thus far.
On a positive note, even as Murray shot well against Utah in the previous game, remember that his head coach called him out for a poor showing on the glass. Making up for that in this game, Murray grabbed 6 rebounds, likely avoiding the constructive criticism of coach Brown.
The Kings are headed up to Portland for two against the Trailblazers in three nights.
It’s essentially over for the Blazers this season in terms of playoffs/play-in hopes. At 32-43 and 5 games behind the tenth place Thunder, the road is steep. Even steeper is the idea of them playing without their superstar Damian Lillard, who may very well be shut down due to his calf injury.
Even as they lost big to New Orleans by a score of 90-124 and even as the appearance of that squad checking out begins to stand out, it’s nevertheless an NBA team. The Kings will have to take care of business.