One of the prominent characteristics of championship teams and contenders is winning games when their best players are out, especially when playing weaker opponents.
Among some of the best NBA teams, most hold their own without their number-one star. The Bucks went 11-8 without Giannis Antetokounmpo last season. The 76ers were 11-5 without Joel Embiid, the Celtics were 5-3 without Jayson Tatum, and the Eastern Conference champion Heat broke even without Jimmy Butler at 9-9. Furthermore, the Warriors were 14-12 without Steph Curry, the Lakers were just 13-14 without LeBron James, and of course, the Grizzlies managed an 11-10 record without Ja Morant.
After their defense put them in a position to win in their one-point loss to Golden State on Wednesday, the Kings looked like a high school team against the Houston Rockets, who are in a developmental mode.
Without De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento looked lost and without an identity. They produced some good looks, but their struggles from the outside continued (11 of 41 from three as a team). What’s more—and what separated this game from the Warriors game—the defense was frequently absent, resulting in a 89-107 road loss that put the Kings at 2-3 overall this season.
With the Kings trying to take that proverbial next step, this loss was a horrendous sign in regards to championship DNA as the team looked abysmal, and worse, they looked like they were giving up on both themselves and the things they can control.
After the loss, Mike Brown broke down the lack of both mental toughness and resolve exhibited by his team.
“The more we missed, we allowed that to deflate us on the other end of the floor,” coach Brown described postgame. “And it became easier for them to make (shots), and we didn’t put up any resistance at all as the (fourth) quarter went along and we were missing shots, so we have to do a better job of fighting no matter what’s going on on both ends of the floor. And if we miss shots, we miss shots, but (we have to try to) continue to get stops and see if we can make this a one (or) two possession game down the stretch. I thought our resolve was not good, especially in the fourth quarter, and that’s something that for sure cannot be habitual because that’s what losing teams, in my opinion, do, and that’s not what we are.”
The Kings played, as Brown says, like a losing team. Their efforts in Golden State nearly resulted in a victory as the team rested its hat on defense, but they came into Houston and allowed themselves to completely unravel.
They may not be a losing team, but it’s on them to continue to prove that. A loss like Saturday’s—again, as Brown said—is the textbook showing of a loser. When things got tough—when shots didn’t fall, when Houston produced good looks and extra opportunities—the Kings seemed to never have an answer.
Sacramento had some good moments. They had a good second quarter, winning it 34-26, and despite their nonexistent offense, they forced the Rockets to go scoreless for a seven-plus minute stretch in the third quarter. Due to both of those efforts, they were down only 3 points at the start of the fourth, but the “fight” and “resolve”—the kind Brown expects—was nowhere to be found.
The Kings lacked offensive answers for much of the contest. Malik Monk was the leading scorer with 18, Harrison Barnes had 13, and JaVale McGee had 12 for third most. Meanwhile, shooting struggles continued for others. Keegan Murray went 1 of 8 from three (1 of his last 15) and Kevin Huerter was 0 of 3 from that range (he’s 1 of his last 8).
The offense’s ball and player movement was putrid for much of the game (they finished with just 20 team assists), but even on the quality looks, the Kings couldn’t get anything to fall. And that happens, but drawing the ire of the head coach was the sorry response to that reality.
Kayte Christensen asked a good question in the postgame presser, querying what the team’s identity is when three’s don’t fall, particularly with them missing their top scorer.
“It has to be defensively because we’re not going to hit three’s all of the time, especially come playoff time,” Brown explained. “We just experienced it (in the Warriors series in April), and so, in order to be a championship level team, you got to be able to defend because the ball is not going to go in the hole all the time and I’m not sure if we’re ready to embrace that all the way because we’ve done it in spurts — if some shots are going in, we’re feeling a little bit better about ourselves. If our shots are not going in, you can just look at the body language, and our heads drop, our shoulders drop a little bit, and we really let that impact us if we’re not getting it done offensively.”
Murray is a promising player, but his performance in this game really illustrated this lack of resolve.
The second-year player got some high-percentage looks, one’s that typically fall, but he finished just 3 of 12 from the field. He had some nice defensive moments here and there, but he drew the criticism of Brown on a play following a missed Rockets free throw early in the fourth where Murray let Jabari Smith Jr. grab the offensive board and get an extra score to go. Not only was he soft on the box out effort, he was easy to move aside on the extra offensive attempt.
Regardless of whether or not his body language dipped at various points, that moment displayed the overall lack of fight within the team.
And that’s not being too hard on Murray. He’s supposed to take considerable steps this season. Without Fox, everyone has to step up, but he in particular needs to, especially with so much attention on Domantas Sabonis in Houston’s game plan.
His shots didn’t fall against Golden State, but his defensive efforts were distinguished among a solid team effort that gave them an undeniable chance to win. There was nothing of that sort against Houston. He missed shot after shot, and his defensive efforts waned and waned.
And it was more or less like that for the whole team as Houston continued to get looks—good looks—to fall down the stretch, icing the game before the final minutes could begin ticking away.
This, as Brown said, is something that cannot happen, something that “cannot become habitual.”
Fox may return for Monday’s game, but he might not. Even if he does, there will likely be other games—maybe even stretches—where Fox can’t go. If that is indeed the case, this team is too deep, too talented overall to be dropping games like these.
It’s early in the season, but this was the sign of a team that lost belief in themselves in the middle of battle. They let Houston set a tone before fighting their way back into it by straightening some things out—credit to McGee, Chris Duarte, and others in the second unit—but then they fell on their faces down the stretch.
Adversity hits in a variety of ways as was the case on Saturday night, and that will come after you in the postseason. If this team continues to roll over like this without their best player, then what does that say about the team? Yes, Fox is great and one of the best in the game, but what about the Sacramento Kings?
Teams—not solo performances—win championships, and the Kings looked like a group that’s far off from embodying that reality on Saturday.
From here, all one can ask is how will they respond?