‘That’s Who We Can Be’: Kings Again Respond, Clinch Divison in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 04: Malik Monk #0 of the Sacramento Kings reacts during the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on April 04, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

After a depleted performance at home on Sunday, the Kings travelled out to New Orleans to have an excellent response to their overtime loss in the previous contest, smacking the Pelicans by a score of 121-103 to clinch the Pacific Division for the first time since they did so twenty years ago.

Responsive has been a characteristic of this team all season, and once again, their answer was resounding. They were soft and listless against San Antonio, but in the Big Easy, they were physical and engaged. After a 23 assist game, they had a 35 assist performance; after settling on lazy three-point attempts for 25.0%, they generated better looks to go 40.5% from deep; and after allowing their opponent to shoot 53.15 from the field on Sunday, they held NOLA to 44.0% from the field.

More importantly, they held Brandon Ingram to 22 points after he’d been averaging over 30 in the previous eight games. CJ McCollum was limited to 6 of 19 from the floor for just 12 points. Trey Murphy scored 17, Jonas Valanciunas had 13, and Dyson Daniels added 12 off the bench.

For Sacramento, Domantas Sabonis was the sail, recording his thirteenth triple-double of the season with 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, and De’Aaron Fox was the wind behind it as he lead all scorers with 23 points to go along with 9 assits. Keegan Murray added 21 points on 7 of 10 from deep, Malik Monk was electric off the bench with 17 points and 3 assists, Harrison Barnes scored 13, Kevin Huerter added 11, and Davion Mitchell hit two big three’s for 8 points on top of his defense.

Any of the serious concern that may have formed Sunday was dialed back immensely with yet another show of accountability and grit on the road. Overall, they looked very good.

“That was probably our most complete game of the year,” Mike Brown declared to start his postgame remarks. “I’ve been talking about it the whole season — we’ve done it in spurts, but the physicality that we brought to the game tonight from the beginning … was really good. That’s who we can be.”

With their 48th win and their clinching of the division, the Kings remain a pair of games behind the second place Grizzlies, who beat the Trail Blazers. First place Denver, however, fell to Houston, sitting only 2 games above Memphis. Additionally, wins befell the Lakers, Warriors (beating the tenth place Thunder), Suns, and Timberwolves on Tuesday. Phoenix sits in fourth, the Warriors in fifth, and the Clippers and Lakers—identical records—reside in sixth and seventh. New Orleans remains in eighth, but only a half game above Minnesota.

Game summary (takeaways below)

Picking up where they left off in OT versus the Spurs, Sacramento settled for four three’s to start the game, all misses and all lacking an accompanying paint touch. While Brandon Ingram continued showing his hot streak, the Kings got some looks at the rim, mostly due to the Sabonis-Huerter connection. Kessler Edwards slowed Ingram just enough, and Sac began to close the gap. Add in some forced turnovers (6 for 10 points off), offensive rebounds, and a Malik Monk three at the buzzer, and the Kings had a 25-22 lead after one.

The defense and pace for Sacramento looked pretty good to start the second—in spite of some of the work Valanciunas was doing for a bit—plus they actually saw some three’s fall. But Sabonis’ passing, on top of the stops the team was getting, was picking New Orleans apart. After Davion Mitchell showed him up a bit, Dyson Daniels was showing his value, helping lift his club to a 5 point swing. The Pels had their offense going, but Sac remained responsive, and after a 40-32 quarter, the Kings lead 65-54 at the half.

Out of halftime, the Kings looked spry, but the Pelicans were sticking with them, producing nice answers to everything their opponent was doing. Lifting the lead back up to double digits was Keegan Murray, who was on fire from deep, scoring 15 points in the third period. And in the final three minutes, Sac’s defensive physicality looked terrific, holding NOLA to 26 points in the third—10 of those points coming from the charity stripe after getting into the bonus fairly early—and leading 96-80.

Again, the Kings were beginning to rack up some early fouls, but they soon got in a rhythm as Monk and Sabonis did their work on one end while Edwards and Mitchell did theirs on the other. And speaking of Mitchell, he hit a pair of crucial three-pointers. Sac pushed the lead to 20 points before New Orleans made a tiny yet noticeable effort, forcing a timeout, but out of it, the Kings stretched it back out to 21 on a deep Huerter three that initiated mop up time with about three minutes left. 

Physical response pleases Mike Brown

In what was considered one of the best team wins of the season by the head coach, one particular characteristic stood out: physicality.

“We didn’t feel like we shot the ball well, but because of our physicality defensively, because we had five guys on a string defensively with a sense of urgency, it helped us stay in the game when we went down early and eventually take the lead towards the end of the first,” Mike Brown noted with pleasure after the win.

As it seems Brown is saying, physicality always gives a team a chance, and that is especially true with the lights come on in the postseason, where the game seems to morph into something else entirely.

He then proceeded to spend the next three or four minutes going down the line to compliment all the players that contributed, calling Tuesday’s game “a great team effort.” Even commending Huerter (who went 1 of 5 from three) for his movement that kept the defense “leaning” as well as Trey Lyles (who went scoreless) for his effort to be felt on the glass and on defense.

All of it culminated to a great response.

“I challenged our two superstars,” coach Brown recounted when asked about the team’s showing. “They responded the right way. … I just kept it real with them, but at the end of the day, but this group has done enough to know that they’re good and they have a chance at this thing. And so they responded to what I showed them (in the film session) and what I told them the right way, and that’s why I’m extremely proud of all the players in that locker room.”

And Mike Brown’s satisfaction was no understatement.

Ending his presser, he was asked about how they’ll celebrate clinching the division while still prepping for the final three games of the season, and his answered connoted how much he’s content with the current moment.

“We’re going to celebrate this tonight,” he said with a grin. “I’m going to listen to my country music and drink a Modelo, get on this bus and fly to Dallas and we’ll figure (the rest) out tomorrow.”

Ingram forced to ‘work,’ held to 22

Another main contributor to the head coach’s delight was that his team simply made Brandon Ingram—one of the hottest players in the league coming into this one—”work” for everything, which was always going to be a critical factor in deciding this game.

“Our whole thing was, ‘Hey, let’s just try to make him work,'” Brown relayed after the victory. “Try to get up in his chest, make him work, try to contest all his shots — we’re not going to block his shots because he’s so long and talented — but if he has to work for his shots, then we’ve done our job.”

The lanky star scored 14 points in the first quarter on 4 of 9 shooting. In the second, though, he  went scoreless on 0 of 1 from the field. In the third, he scored 4 on 1 of 2 from the floor, and on 2 of 3 shooting, added another 4 in the fourth quarter.

In short, more than half his points scored and field goal attempts came in the first period. What’s more, his made field goals came in the first half of the first quarter as he only managed 3 made free throws in the latter half of the quarter.

“You’re not stopping a guy like Brandon Ingram — shoot, he had 22 points and he almost shot 50-percent from the field — but all you can do is make him work and I thought the combination of HB and Kessler (Edwards) made him work for his shots tonight,” assessed Mike Brown in his postgame presser. 

Barnes was on him from the start, always providing a valiant effort, even on the occasions where a shot did go down. His efforts to always find Ingram and get a body on him was discernible throughout the night, particularly in transition. Barnes was beyond solid, and when a little help came through—such as Huerter’s or Murray’s—it was more than just making Ingram work.

Edwards was pivotal as he provided a frenetic look on BI. After Ingram hit four straight field goals in the first period, KE put a quick stop to it. In less than a minute, he shrouded New Orleans’ most dangerous scorer, forcing two consecutive misses with some fundamentally sound and relentless defense.

By disrupting Brandon Ingram, the Kings demonstrated that they are capable of making life difficult on anyone.

Keegan Murray and Kevin Huerter surpass the 200 marker

Rookie Keegan Murray surpassed the 200 made-three’s marker, reaching 201. He did so on a 7 of 10 night from three where he went 5 of 6 in the third at a critical point in terms of maintaining control of the contest

“There’s no telling what he’s going to end up with this year,” coach Brown said of Murray after recognizing his feat. “So he’s obviously smashed the rookie record and he still has a lot of time to even create more separation.”

Also reaching the 201 three’s mark was Kevin Huerter, who went a mere 1 of 5 from deep. As special of a rookie as Murray is, Brown noted how vital Huerter has been for the kid’s success.

“Being around Kevin (Huerter) has helped (Murray) grow a lot because Kevin’s ability to create separation — not just for himself, but sometimes he creates separation because his pace is so good in the half court,” the head coach explained. “He draws a lot of defense towards him … even when he doesn’t get the ball, and so Keegan being able to play with him and see that with the way he shoots the ball has helped him grow probably quicker than he would have grown if Kevin wasn’t here.”

Both players’ ability to space the floor and hit big shots has contributed to a significant portion of this team’s success, and the way they can contribute to each other’s individual success cannot be overlooked.

Alex Len: the backup 5

This marks the fifth game where Alex Len has been the backup center, and looking at this stretch, it does not appear that any change is needed. In fact, he not only fulfills the role spectacularly, he has a chance to make a huge impact in the playoffs.

As he has been doing, he provided the same presence on defense, on the boards (see here and here), and as an experienced safety valve for dump offs and passes.

Looking at that defense, Mike Brown articulated one of the nice things about Len’s defense, which is important to note because he’s proving to be so much more than a bruising shot-blocker.

“That size in the paint has been great because he’s used it well, and his physicality, he’s used it well,” Brown noted of his 7-footer.

By using it well, he, as noted before, fits well into what Brown is expecting defensively. In the head coach’s mind, everyone can defend if they get in the right position at the right time, be physical without fouling, and be persistent. 

Len’s size can’t do it all for him, but it produces some excellent residual results when in tandem with the necessary fundamentals. 

Here, before Len can get a hand up for a block, he has to get back on defense to get set and, more importantly, protect the middle of the floor as a helper. Since he wasn’t able to just stand stationary in the paint, it’s his positioning and awareness that allow for the block.

And here, he had to slide in to protect the middle and be as much of an obstacle while still going straight up to avoid the foul. Len did that, making the shot difficult with the positioning while the size exacerbated the difficulty for CJ McCollum. Better yet, he showed what could be considered surprising body control to end up with the block, which was icing on the cake.

Alex Len is proving to be so much more than what many viewed him as, which was a traditional shot-blocker. He’s executed the teachings of Mike Brown and his assistants, and thus the coaching staff needs not look any further regarding the backup 5.

Davion’s ‘gift’

Mike Brown had kind words for his second-year defensive stalwart.

“Davion — I mean the pressure he puts on the ball when he’s guarding it, especially in pick-and-roll situations, for a young guy — I mean we can’t teach that, that’s a gift that he has,” the head coach said.

Brown then went on to highlight the forced eight-second violation—a rare occurrence in the league—that Davion Mitchell produced on rookie Dyson Daniels.

“He did that all himself,” Brown noted. “That was big-time.”

What’s new, right? Anyway, this was more of a celebration of that rare kind of turnover that Mitchell produced.

Malik Monk’s return after one-game absence

Leading the team in +/- at 23 and providing an essential dose of life every time he entered the game, Malik Monk got right back to work after missing Sunday’s game as a late scratch.

“Malik — he was great on both ends of the floor,” coach Brown expressed postgame. “He created advantages for all of our guys throughout the course of the game. And he’s what a true sixth man should be.”

Monk was clearing space for his teammates and/or finishing beautifully on offense, highlighting his hybrid threat as a scorer and passer, and on defense, he was sneaky with his help defense, as he was here on this steal that came from some help for Barnes who was on Ingram.

While his odds aren’t the best, he returned to his mission to put himself in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation. Moreover, he continues to show how much he can push this team forward with his contributions.

Going forward

Finishing out the road back-to-back—the last B2B of the season—the Kings travel to Dallas for a Wednesday night showdown.

The Mavericks were nipping at Sac’s heels in the standings when these two teams faced off for a pair of games back in February. They’d just acquired another superstar in Kyrie Irving, and in the second of two games, it was the first time he paired up with Luka Doncic. When they left Sacramento following an overtime loss, the idea was that they’d be a dangerous team going forward.

However, it could not have gone differently. Since the last time these two teams met, Dallas has gone 6-15. Now they essentially reside in the 11th spot in the conference as their play-in hopes—a far cry from the aspirations they likely had two months ago—begin to dwindle.

Over these last 21 games, in spite of posting a 117.7 offensive rating (top-ten in that span), their lack of defense has them at a net rating of -1.1. They simply struggle to defend.

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

Kings Talk: Episode 67

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Dan Smith
5 months ago

Great all around team effort…can we get more of that?! lol It seems like the team always responds after bad games, such as the Spurs loss, when Brown gets on them the next day. But then go back to their old ways and habits shortly after. It takes a bad defensive showing and Brown more than likely reaming them out, before they buckle down and start playing hard defensively and with physicality. I hope they are all ready to step up their efforts for the majority of the playoff games, because it’s a different monster altogether. Go Kings! And LIGHT-THE-BEAM!