Is Kings' Zone Defense Sustainable, Or Did Pacers Just Go Cold?

The Sacramento Kings trailed by 14 to the Indiana Pacers heading into the fourth quarter on Wednesday, proceeded to shoot 6-25 in the final frame ... and managed to win. Defense, obviously, was the difference: Indiana scored just eight points in the fourth (after putting up 23, 27 and 30 in the previous three quarters) and shot 3-16 with an almost stunning nine turnovers.

A lot of that inefficiency seemed to be caused by the Kings' move to a zone defense in the fourth. Keith Smart played two small lineups exclusively in the fourth. For the first half of the quarter, Smart had Jason Thompson and Travis Outlaw up front with Francisco Garcia, Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt. Near the midpoint, he replaced Thompson with DeMarcus Cousins and Outlaw with Marcus Thornton. In the first lineup, the team fairly normal, with Outlaw at PF being undersized. In the second lineup, the Kings practically played a college-style four guards-one big setup.

The zone really mixed things up. But was Indiana just careless with the ball and cold from the floor, or did the Kings' defense force the Pacers into those mistakes?

A look at each Pacers' offensive possession of the fourth is after the jump.

1. A contested George Hill three-pointer. MISS. When you contest shots, you stand a better chance of seeing it rim out. Science!

2. Tyler Hansbrough passes backdoor to a cutting Paul George. MAKE. Two of three easy points for Indiana in the fourth. This is a strong way to break a zone, but the Pacers would only catch an open man in the creases one other time all quarter.

3. Hansbrough posts up and kicks to George, who takes an open three. MISS. This isn't an earned miss for the Kings -- George just missed an open shot, which happens often enough in this league.

4. A Pacers guard tries to penetrate, but loses the ball. TURNOVER. An earned turnover thanks to ball pressure. (Sorry, my notes weren't very detailed here.)

5. Outlaw defends Hansbrough off of the bounce into a travel. TURNOVER. This is a combination of a forced turnover thanks to ball pressure and a bad mistake by Hansbrough.

6. Granger heaves up a well-contested deep three late in the shot clock. MISS. Solid team defense throughout the shot clock, and a strong closeout.

7. JT stops Roy Hibbert in the post, but the loose ball squirts to Granger for an open jumper. MAKE. Thompson defended the ball beautifully, but bad bounces happen. The Kings were a bit lost defensively on the loose ball, as is to be expected for a young team with one player on the court (Outlaw) who has played very little and a couple more (Thomas and Garcia) whose time is inconsistent.

This is where Smart makes his substitutions. The Kings are now down by seven points.

8. Cousins blocks Hibbert's shot in the post; after an offensive rebound, Granger gets a quick but contested three. MISS. This was similar to the previous possession, except the Kings recovered well, balanced up and contested the shot. The Kings earned this empty possession twice.

9. Evans doubles down on Hibbert, who is backing down Cousins in the post, and forces a turnover. TURNOVER. Hibbert began the game schooling Cousins in the paint. Things turned all the way around in the fourth, and help down from the guards/wings certainly made a difference.

10. The Kings force a contested shot late in the clock, but the Pacers get an open look after long rebound. MISS. Again, the Pacers found open space off of an offensive rebound/loose ball. This time, it wouldn't go down. Huge miss for Indiana.

11. On a secondary break, David West fills the lane and scoots into a layup and the foul. MAKE. He missed the free throw, though. This was a good play by a fine player -- the Kings napped a bit as West cut right through, but the layup was contested. Not well, but ... small victories.

12. Isaiah Thomas steals the ball on a soft perimeter pass. TURNOVER. The Pacers begin to unravel ...

13. Thornton intercepts a pass after forcing George to the baseline, where he runs into help. TURNOVER. Help defense and lovely awareness by Thornton do the job here.

14. Granger penetrates and careens into Cousins. Boogie is barely set, barely outside the circle. TURNOVER. This DeMarcus kid, he's pretty good ...

15. George is forced to take a well-contested runner with the shot clock winding down. Hibbert misses a putback attempt, and Granger commits a foul on that loose ball. TURNOVER. Had Hibbert hit the putback, this would have been a different game. Defensive rebounding was a problem all night for the Kings, and when you play this small, that's to be expected. But otherwise, Sacramento did the job perfectly on this possession.

16. Collison takes a contested runner. MISS. Indiana hasn't gotten anything clean in six possessions. The Kings' zone has completely flummoxed the Pacers.

17. Cousins forces a turnover out of bounds in the backcourt. TURNOVER. Indiana tries to bring the ball up quickly, but Cousins make a Rasheed Wallace-type play to knock it off of a Pacer on the sideline. Huge play.

18. Granger is forced into a contested three. MISS. The defense is holding ...

19. Collison takes a contested runner. MISS. ... and holding.

20. The Kings commit an intentional foul while up three. Granger hits the first, intentionally misses the second but commits a lane violation. It was one of the best intentional misses I've ever seen -- the ball was coming right back to Granger; if he hadn't taken a step forward, he would have gotten it and had a chance to tie or take the lead. Whew!

The Kings iced it from the line after the inbounds.

***

With the exception of recovering on loose balls and offensive rebounds, the Kings were almost perfect defensively in the fourth quarter. This wasn't a fluke with the opponents missing tons of open shots. This was an opponent completely thrown off by the zone, the quickness of the Kings lineup and its own inability to get anything easy. The Kings still shouldn't have won -- Sacramento's halfcourt offense was as bad as Indiana's late, but those turnovers created some break opportunities.

Sustainable? We'll see. There's a reason the zone defense is so rare in the NBA: scorers at this level can beat it, and it's more exhausting than man defense. (At least it appears that way.) But Smart has that in his ammo belt now, and I think he learned quite a bit about a few players on his bench. The fourth quarter may have been the first step to a starting nod for Francisco Garcia at small forward.

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