As the Kings dropped their home opener to the Warriors by a score of 114-122, it was evident that many of last year’s demons had surfaced throughout the contest.
It wasn’t all at once, but as Sacramento made certain corrections to one issue, another one would be waiting right around the corner to meet them as Mike Brown’s team struggled to lock in defensively, protect the ball, and convert at the free throw line.
Golden State began the first few minutes of regulation getting easy looks inside as the Kings failed to set a tone with physicality. The visitors also scored a handful of times in transition and used their penetrations in the half court to open up a few outside looks. Sac’s efforts to be physical through screens was a saving grace near the end of the first quarter and into the second. They did hold their opponent to 24 first period points.
However, there were still moments as the half was coming to a close where the Kings’ ability to stop drives into the middle, especially guarding the pick-and-roll, would subside, and in all, the second quarter presented a few instances where the team did not looked completely focused on that end of the floor. For example, early in the second, De’Aaron Fox was late getting a second contest up after Chris Paul utilized a few pump fakes.
In a similar vein, Monk did not go vertical or use his chest as the low man on a Kevon Looney cut and score with JaVale McGee having stepped up at the perimeter. And on the next defensive possession, Andrew Wiggins broke to the rim due to a screen and Fox went for a steal rather than stepping in front of the driver, forcing Chris Duarte to apply a hard foul to prevent an easy bucket.
The Warriors had tallied 36 points in the second period.
In the third quarter, things got worse, but for a different reason. The inside scoring was limited to just 10 paint points compared to 26 in the first half, but Golden State began hitting jumpers amounting to a 39-point period. Some of that came from better offense besting earnest defense.
Just ask Duarte, who provided some great pressure according to coach Brown, but nevertheless, he was either bested by shooting ability or whistled for a foul for being a tad too physical. Even as the former Pacer fouled out in the final minute, the fouls are something Brown can live with, as indicated by Monk’s comments after practice on Thursday.
Something Brown can’t live with is when the defense gets toyed around. Kevin Huerter—whose leash seems to be shortening rapidly—had little chance to stop the likes of Steph Curry in his limited time, but that was on top of having lackluster recovery speed when he tried to close out on similar looks, allowing his man to get by. And of course, when forced to chase after a screen, Huerter was again playing catch-up. Thus, the starting two-guard played sparingly as he continued to run into trouble on both sides of the ball.
It wasn’t just Huerter. Brown wasn’t a fan of the overall pick-and-roll defense, which was the biggest hindrance last season, and it gave the opponent all sorts of open looks from various spots on the court.
Thinking about defending outside shots, there were a few fundamental mistakes contesting those attempts. Duarte granted Curry a 4-point play—it may have been a questionable whistle, but the need for perfection against history’s best shooter was clear cut and insufficient—and Keegan Murray at one point bit on a pump fake, giving Klay Thompson, history’s second-best shooter, an open look from the mid-range.
As noted, they were not sharp defensively end to end. Even as the Kings improved at holding off inside scoring opportunities, there were clear miscommunications. A prime example happened with Sasha Vezenkov and McGee in the third, allowing a backdoor cut and score.
That latter half did contain a few useful applications of the trap to force turnovers or fruitless possessions for the Warriors. Golden State committed 8 turnovers and was limited to 23 points in the fourth while Fox turned it on to admirably shrink the gap. Even with that, it proved too late as the inconsistency really bogged down the team’s chances.
A huge factor in the poor defense occurred on offense though. Last season, while the Kings were in the top-12 in fewest turnovers per game, they were in the bottom half in opponents’ points off turnovers.
Sacramento turned the ball over 14 times for 26 total points. The demons of last year’s Golden State team—turnovers and the inability to close out on the road—seemed to be materializing as well in the final quarter, but they managed to hold on despite their 8 turnovers for 12 points in that period. In the end, the Kings’ poor ball protection was a detriment to their production on both ends of the floor as the Warriors got to play a style they really thrive in due to the mistakes, finishing with a field goal percentage over 55% with Curry catching a smooth rhythm.
Furthermore, even as they had trouble scoring for much of the second half, the Kings were at least getting to the line, but the results were putrid. Fox, Sabonis, and Monk combined for 15 of 17 from the line, but the rest of the team went 5 of 12. As a whole, they were 20 of 29 (69.0%), again shooting themselves in the foot multiple times. The Kings’ free throw percentage wasn’t horrible a season ago (79%), but they lost a handful of painfully memorable games with poor showings from the charity stripe.
In a lot of ways, even as Curry and the Warriors got some tough shots to fall and while the Kings missed a lot of makable shots, Sacramento beat themselves in ways all too familiar.
As Fox put it postgame, the issues compounded into one overarching characteristic: a lack of consistency.
Of course, it was only the second game of the season. Plus, the Kings will get two other cracks at the Warriors in the near future, including a matchup at the Chase Center on Wednesday. And to be fair, Sacramento was more in tune with physicality and did contain Golden State on the glass fairly well, which, if one recalls, was a major issue in April’s playoff series.
Nevertheless, Friday’s game contained so much carryover of many of the same bad habits, something that will have to be corrected, both for individual guys and the team as a whole.
Despite the continuity of the squad, there are probably going to be changes to the rotations and perhaps even the starting lineup. This team is deep enough and loaded with talented options, so Mike Brown will have to play around a little with what works while also continuing to preach for smarter and more physical basketball.
Being so early on in the season, there is plenty of time to achieve more consistency, which is the key to making the proverbial leap from good to great. Even so, the shortage of it led to a pretty lousy loss.