Three takeaways: The Sacramento Kings show defensive progress in win over Atlanta

Dec 30, 2023, 7:47 AM

De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings warms up prior to the start of an NBA basketball game again...

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 20: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings warms up prior to the start of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics at Golden 1 Center on December 20, 2023 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. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

After a tough loss to the Portland Trail Blazers three nights prior, the Sacramento Kings were trailing by 23 points in the opening quarter Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks. Yet, they maintained their composure and overcame the deficit thanks to stellar bench production, a much-improved defensive effort in the second half, and De’Aaron Fox’s improved range.

Before diving into the specifics of their 117-110 road win, Kevin Huerter suffered a ‘left-hand injury’ early into the third quarter and did not return to action. The severity of his injury is currently unclear, leaving a heavier reliance on reserves, who stepped up as needed.

Also, since Domantas Sabonis didn’t make the cut for this version of takeaways, I want to quickly highlight his production. He tallied 25 points, ten rebounds, and seven assists on 12/17 from the field. It was just another day at the office for Sacramento’s All-Star big.

Here are my takeaways from the Sacramento Kings’ big win at State Farm Arena.

Sparky bench production

By the 6:55 mark of quarter one, the Hawks held a 6-18 lead. Mike Brown elected to substitute Malik Monk and Trey Lyles into the game a minute or so earlier than usual. From there, Atlanta went on a 13-2 run, leaving the scoreboard at 8-31 and cornering Brown into calling his second timeout.

Then, Fox returned, and Alex Len made his first appearance. Their Fox, Monk, Chris Duarte, Lyles, and Len lineup managed a timely response. Ending the initial stint with a 12-5 run shortened the remaining uphill battle.

“That’s when we started getting stops and getting in transition and running,” head coach Mike Brown told reporters in Atlanta postgame. “Those guys were sharing the ball, and the first person that was open, boom, they let it go. So, I thought it started with our defense with that group, which led to us getting going offensively, and that was a lot of fun to watch. Especially coming from those guys that ended up getting more minutes than what they normally get.”

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After having played roughly three games of notable playing time since November 13th, Davion Mitchell made his first appearance three minutes into the second quarter. Brown shared afterward that the gameplan heading into the arena was for Keon Ellis to function as the backup point guard, but he spontaneously elected to go with Mitchell, looking for a spark.

As usual, Off-Night provided a defensive intensity to a group that had lacked in that department up to that point. Whether picking up Trae Young full court, drawing two offensive fouls on the other end, or setting the tone for his teammates to follow, it was enough for the third-year guard to be awarded their Defensive Player of the Game crown in the locker room.

“We got off to a slow start, and we needed a stop defensively.,” Mitchell said. “Mike (Brown) trusts me, especially on that side, and he knows that people on the bench usually change the game with their energy. That’s what I try to do. I try to stay ready in those moments because I know that in every game our starters aren’t going to come out blazing. There’s going to be times that we come out slow. So, I just try to go in there and change the game defensively, try to get stops and get easy buckets.”

Not only did he replace Fox when the guard sat, but he played alongside him for stretches as well. The same defensive impact could be highlighted regarding Len and Chris Duarte. With Huerter unavailable down the stretch, Duarte was Brown’s choice for the closing unit, hitting a big triple to help seal it late.

Ball pressure from Mitchell and Duarte, combined with Len’s backline of rim protection (in the form of verticality and physicality), bolstered their team defense throughout the night. Simultaneously, Monk and Lyles were executing and converting offensively.

That duo combined for 26 points off the bench on 13/22 shooting, including 6/14 from three. “I usually come in and just bring a spark,” Monk said.

“In the Portland game, that was kind of laid back, I think, and that’s what had us going downhill there. But, me and Trey (Lyles) always talk. He can tell me whatever. I can tell him whatever. But we always know we’ve got to bring the energy every time we come in, and that’s all we tried to do.”

That bench production carried over into the second half, where the Sacramento Kings looked like an entirely different team.

A tale of two halves

After the aforementioned nightmare start and subsequent response from the Kings, they held their own in the second quarter. But scoring 30 to Atlanta’s 35 didn’t help chip away.

Maybe they reached out to their connects at Space Jam and had passed around some of ‘Michael’s Secret Stuff’ during halftime because their focus and attention to detail were night and day.

After conceding 71 points in the first 24 minutes, the Kings limited the Hawks to 39 points in the final 24 minutes of action — their fewest points allowed since Brown took over as head coach of the Sacramento Kings last season.

Throughout the 2023-24 NBA season, Brown has called for improved internal leadership from his players. According to him, tonight was a substantial step in the right direction.

“I don’t think you can ever become a great team in this league until the locker room takes ownership in the process, and it’s all the guys in the locker room,” he said. “It can’t always come from me, and it can’t always come from the other coaches. It’s got to come from within that circle of players, which they did a heck of a job of tonight.”

“They’re going in that direction. Probably a little slower than I and everyone else want them to, but they’re heading that way, and tonight was a big step. A big learning experience for all of them in that regard.”

  • Atlanta’s first half: 71 points, 19 assists, four turnovers, and ten offensive rebounds on 49 percent from the field, 50 percent (10/20) from three, and 76.5 percent (13/17) from the free-throw line
  • Atlanta’s second half: 39 points, ten assists, 11 turnovers, and eight offensive rebounds on 28.9 percent from the field, 21.7 percent (5/23) from three, and 100 percent (8/8) from the free-throw line

Brown highlighted three primary aspects when discussing Friday night’s defensive turnaround: communication, being physical without fouling, and providing multiple efforts.

“I thought we got (that), especially when we went to the bench,” he said. “I thought we got it tonight in a large dose in that second half.”

Oh, and it helps that De’Aaron Fox followed up his career night from three in Portland with a conseuctive career performance.

De’Aaron Fox is a shooter now, folks

It might be time to start talking about Fox as not just a good shooter, but one of the best in the league. That would have to be proven over a more significant period, but his substantial progress this season from range is undeniable.

On Tuesday, he set a new career high in three-pointers made and attempted, knocking down seven of his 14 looks. That record didn’t last long for the Sacramento Kings’ best player.

Despite having just five points at halftime, he ended Friday’s matchup with 31 points, eight assists, five rebounds, and four steals while shooting 10/20 from the field, including 8/16 from three.

Read that again. Sixteen of his 20 field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and it was smart basketball. The trust he, his coaching staff, and his teammates have accumulated in his jump shot stems from countless hours of work with assistant coach Luke Loucks and others in recent seasons.

“We know De’Aaron is one of the best players in our league,” Mitchell said. “We knew he wasn’t just going to have ten points and end the game. He’s too good for that. He can get his points at three levels… today he was feeling the three-pointer, and he helped us tremendously in this win.”

Five players in the league are averaging upwards of 30 points per game. Fox, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Two former MVPs and, aside from Fox, all of those listed have made an All-NBA First team in recent years.

He’s made that jump in production largely thanks to his progress from beyond the arc, converting 40.4 percent of his 8.9 three-point attempts per game — both clear career-highs. Four players in the NBA are shooting upwards of 40 percent on eight or more attempts: Tyrese Haliburton, Stephen Curry, Anfernee Simons, and De’Aaron Fox.

In his seventh NBA season, Fox has managed to take the jump many never expected. His ability to convert from beyond the arc at an elite level changes how defenses approach him and the entirety of the Sacramento Kings. His top-tier rim pressure and finishing ability remain, as does his mid-range and floater.

“They were giving him the three-ball tonight. And he’s shown, like I keep saying time and time again, that he can knock that shot down,” Brown said. “To go 8-for-16 from beyond the arc was a big night for him. When you set a career-high in threes-made, and you did it on fifty percent shooting in a game that’s as tight as this one was, that shows that you can be a special player in this league.”

At this point, it feels like there’s nothing Fox can’t do on the offensive end of the floor. If he can keep this production level up, he deserves to continue flirting with MVP-ballot conversations.

When is the next Sacramento Kings game?

Goodbye, 2023!

Sacramento will play its final game of 2023 on Sunday evening when they face recently-returned Ja Morant and the Grizzlies in Memphis.

Be sure to tune in to Sactown Sports 1140 for all of your Kings vs. Grizzlies coverage, beginning at 3:30 PM PST on Game Night before a 5:00 PM PST tip-off from Memphis.

Upcoming Schedule

  • Sunday, December 31st – Sacramento Kings @ Memphis Grizzlies – 5:00 PM PST
  • Tuesday, January 2nd – Sacramento Kings vs. Charlotte Hornets – 7:00 PM PST
  • Wednesday, January 3rd – Sacramento Kings vs. Orlando Magic – 7:00 PM PST
  • Friday, January 5th – Sacramento Kings vs. Toronto Raptors – 7:00 PM PST
  • Sunday, January 7th – Sacramento Kings vs. New Orleans Pelicans – 3:00 PM PST

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