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Are the Kings Out of the Woods Yet?

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 8: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings and Malik Monk #0 of the Sacramento Kings celebrate during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 8, 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 License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

An added benefit of a guy earning an opportunity is the fact it opens up another opportunity for a different guy to respond.

Keon Ellis performed valiantly despite his team’s dismal showing on Monday night. He defended, played with pace, and hit some shots. As such, Mike Brown gave him the start on Wednesday over Davion Mitchell, who started the first three games with De’Aaron Fox’s absence due to his ankle sprain.

Ellis was more than solid in his first NBA start, playing his part to set the tone, but Mitchell came out with his best game of the season in the overtime win over the Trail Blazers.

One of the topics on our Kings Talk Podcast this week was whether Malik Monk should start when Fox is out, which has been a focus for many. The primary thinking behind that wasn’t so much about Monk, but rather Mitchell, who did not perform all that well in three spot starts, particularly in the final game in Houston.

Mitchell’s aggression ebbed and flowed, he struggled to hit open shots both inside and out, and he was the point guard for the majority of what ended up being one of the most stagnant offensive showings imaginable for the Kings.

In all, he was regressing game to game as the step-in replacement for Fox, and his benching on Wednesday against Portland highlighted that. It was also a challenge.

In response, Mitchell went 6 of 9 from the field, including 3 of 4 from deep, for 16 points and 4 assists to go along with his ideal defensive output.

Moreover, there was no hesitancy to his game as he continually fought to get into the paint; he found a layup in there because of it, and 2 of his 4 assists were generated from penetrations into the paint (one, creating a spray three; the other, a pass to a cutting Barnes after turning a hard corner towards the basket).

He also exemplified the pace of the team. Getting downhill decisively helped the half court pace return to the norm for Sacramento, and the way he ran (and finished) in the full court got him three transition buckets with two reverse layups and a three as the Kings finished with 18 fast break points in the overtime victory.

Confidence has been a common word used when talking about Mitchell’s year-three, and though it seemed susceptible to bending, he proved fearless against the Trail Blazers. In overtime, Kevin Huerter got downhill off a screen and kicked it out to Mitchell in the corner, where he hit Sac’s first bucket in the period with a big three-pointer that helped secure a win in the end.

“I thought Davion, for getting moved to the bench, kept his composure and went out there and found a way to help us win,” coach Brown said postgame in his opening comments.

He added later that Mitchell “kept himself ready” and, aside from his successful night from the field, brought a strong effort.

This was on top of Keon Ellis’ satisfactory go as a spot starter as well as successful nights from Kessler Edwards and Alex Len in their rotational opportunities. Credit has to go to Edwards and Len even though they demonstrated last season that they can stay ready.

Through this Mike Brown-led Kings era, guys have consistently proven to stay ready, whether it’s staying ready to play an elevated role, to remain composed when faced with a challenge, or to hold themselves accountable. It’s their resilience that has so far proven to be a strength.

It surfaced once more on Wednesday night, and at a perfect time too. Sacramento had looked like it had traveled down a dark tunnel through their two games in Houston before finally hitting a dead end. In the second game, it appeared they’d given up.

As Mike Brown noted, this was a big win considering a few things, including the fact the Kings shot 29.7% from three-point range.

“It’s easy — especially right now when two of your guys (Fox and Trey Lyles) are out, when you’re shooting the way that you’re shooting — it’s easy just to cave in and just say, ‘hey, let’s give it a hard effort and go home,'” the head coach said, commending his team.

There’s life again and Sacramento may have gotten a step closer to returning to the style of basketball they want to play, but there’s still work lying ahead, both individually and collectively.

Coach Brown didn’t have an update on Fox’s ankle pregame on Wednesday, so it is possible that he could miss at least another game, which would be the Kings’ first group stage game for the NBA Cup against Oklahoma City on Friday.

They also have a lot of things to iron out as a team.

As they work to improve their defensive physicality, they still need to lower the number of fouls they commit. They average the fifth most fouls at 21.6 per game and they had 23 in regulation against Portland.

Their defense also has to be better throughout the entirety of the game. Coach Brown thought they played well “in stretches” defensively, but since that was the appraisal for most of last season, there is still a lot to work on. And Domantas Sabonis felt the defense “wasn’t horrible” and says there’s good effort throughout the team, but he admitted there were some “mistakes” that they “kept making.”

Additionally, they still need to establish a more consistent offensive flow. Their effort is up defensively and it’s likely contributing to the team’s three-point percentage (32.5%), low pace (99.40), and league-last fast break points per game (9.0). They returned to playing faster in this last one, but they have to continue to adjust to playing both ends of the floor at the intended intensity.

And that goes for some more than others. Keegan Murray, for instance, has shown growth in his defense and rebounding, but he’s shooting just 33.7% from the field and 25.0% from beyond the arc.

There’s plenty more to improve on, but at least this win gave them something positive to grasp onto. For the Kings, it’s about stringing these improvements and tiny victories together because, regardless of their effort or heart, they are still far off from where they should be in terms of results.

Missing Fox has a lot to do with that, but given the group’s ultimate ambitions, it remains true.

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