The Sacramento Kings hosted the Portland Trailblazers at the newly minted Sleep Train Arena tonight, and cruised to their second straight preseason victory with the 117-100 win. Marcus Thornton led the team in scoring with 23 points on 8-11 from the field. DeMarcus Cousins also had 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 assists in just 23 minutes of play as he was limited due to foul trouble. For the Blazers, rookie Damian Lillard had a strong second half and finished with 20 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists to lead them.
The Kings started a different lineup than their first preseason game, with Aaron Brooks and Travis Outlaw replacing Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton respectively. Keith Smart has said that he wants to use the preseason to experiment with his rotations, so I'm sure this isn't the last change we'll be seeing and that nothing final has been decided with regards to the starting lineup.
Still, the Kings got off to a great start, mainly thanks to some great shooting by Aaron Brooks, who finished with 16 points on 6-8 from the field. Most of Brooks' damage came in the 1st quarter, when he used his speed to get open from distance and also to get to the basket. Neither Damian Lillard or Nolan Smith could keep up with him, and Brooks also did an admirable job in defending as well, which surprised me. The book on Brooks is that he's offense-only, but he was using his quickness to stay in front of his man and deny penetration, which was nice to see.
One thing that really impressed me with the Kings was the change in style from last year. Particularly in the first half and early on, there was much less dribbling, and players were constantly looking for targets to pass to. A common strategy would be to dump it into the post, then back out again, and try to get back in for an easy bucket. The constant passing was really throwing off the Blazers defense, and the Kings were able to carve it up for a lot of easy looks, which led to a very efficient shooting night. The Kings ended up with 58 points in the paint, in large part due to their passing and attacking the basket. This was in addition to the 11 threes that they hit, thanks to the better spacing. It wasn't just one player doing the passing either, it was everyone. While the Kings finished with 22 assists (to just 14 turnovers) no player had more than 4, and only Jason Thompson and Travis Outlaw didn't have one of the players who played major minutes.
Defensively, the team was also a lot more active. Switches were more effective, players were out of position less often, and most importantly the Kings controlled the paint, a big problem last year. The Blazers managed just 34 points in the paint and just 7 fast break points, and Sacramento was content to let them hoist three after three, and they finished at just 9-29 from distance.
One thing the team had a real problem with though was fouls, particularly among the big men. DeMarcus was active on defense but he still got a couple of lazy fouls, and worse, complained about it. He eventually ended up getting a tech after complaining too much during a timeout. I'd really like to see him just shake these off. A ref isn't going to uncall a foul, even if it wasn't that egregious. It never happens. Still, DeMarcus was a beast out there and Portland had no answer for him whatsoever. He was able to take any of the Blazers bigs inside (on one play he just drove straight by Aldridge for a layup) or shoot it from outside. He looked a lot quicker and more agile than last year, and in particular, he ran up the court better. Defensively, he had J.J. Hickson's number. Hickson tried to take Cousins inside several times, and Cousins stopped him nearly every time. Of Cousins' 4 blocks, at least 3 of them were on J.J. Hickson. Cousins also had a drawn charge to add to his block total, so he really stepped it up defensively, a good sign.
Thomas Robinson also found himself in foul trouble, and while he looked energetic, he also looked a bit lost on both ends. Defensively he was caught out of position a few times and got cheap reach in fouls when he would try to rectify his mistake. Offensively, he didn't have very many touches, but the few he had were mostly jumpers that were short.
Jason Thompson played a relatively unspectacular 19 minutes, but showed a lot more polish than Robinson, as he was able to attack the basket effectively, and used his experience to draw a few fouls himself. He had a bit of trouble guarding LaMarcus Aldridge though.
The Kings ended the half up 20 points thanks to a hilarious last second three point bank shot by Marcus Thornton. Marcus simply could not miss tonight and probably could have scored 40 if he wanted to. Later in the game, Marcus decided to become a bit more unselfish, but unfortunately chose to become unselfish at the wrong times, i.e. right when he got to the basket. Instead of taking the guaranteed layup, he would pass to a teammate who wasn't ready for the ball or wasn't in as good a spot as Thornton was. It only worked out one of the three times that it happened, but it should have been three easy Marcus Thornton layups.
The second half started the complete opposite for the Kings as the Blazers started to defend a lot more intensely. The passing that was so crisp and nice in the first half started to stutter when the Blazers cut off the first and second options for the Kings. Things got even worse when Cousins left the game with his 5th foul and when Jimmer Fredette came in to run the offense. Jimmer did not look good running the point. He was lost in halfcourt sets, although he did deal with pressure a bit better. However he took a really long time getting the Kings into their offense, and defensively he was a huge sieve. Lillard noticed Jimmer guarding him and a light must have turned on because Lillard exploded in the 3rd quarter. He absolutely lit the Kings up in the 3rd, hitting three three pointers in a matter of minutes. He also took it to the basket repeatedly, easily getting by Jimmer. It didn't get much better when Nolan Smith entered the game, as he also easily abused Jimmer. Jimmer had a couple of nice moments shooting the ball and getting to the line, but I'd much rather see him as an off-the-ball option instead of running the team.
The Kings were able to weather the Blazers storm for a few reasons. For one, Tyreke Evans, who had a very quiet first half, took over the offense of the Kings by going back to his roots: attacking the basket. In the first half, Evans was mainly shooting jumpers, and while his form looked a bit better (both his three point attempts were just barely off), it wasn't working out. When he went back to attacking, he got to the basket easily. He had a couple of ridiculous moves to get to the rim as well in classic Tyreke Fashion.
Another big reason for the Kings eventual victory was the play of newcomer James Johnson. Johnson mainly played in the first half, but he was exceedingly active on defense throughout the game, and was very good attacking the basket on offense, both with and without the ball. When we first signed James Johnson, I called him "the Donté Greene that does exactly what the coaches want him to do". After watching him play in person, this seems an apt comparison. I could very easily see Johnson be the starting Small Forward for the team if he continues to play with this energy on both ends of the floor.
Isaiah Thomas, ever my favorite, did not see much court time with just 11 minutes played. He had a poor shooting night, going just 1-5, but he did add 4 assists and 4 rebounds, and he was an absolute pest to poor Damian Lillard. Lillard could not lose the Hustlin' Husky.
Chuck Hayes looked in much better shape than last season, and beat a couple Blazers to consecutive offensive boards for a putback even, and also successfully posted up LaMarcus Aldridge for a bucket. 7 rebounds and 4 assists as well for Purple Hayes, who looked a lot more like the player we thought we had gotten last season. Aldridge tried to post him up a few times but Hayes would simply not back down. I like this version of Chuck Hayes, he should stick around.
Cisco also had a decent stint, and hit a couple of threes in a row. I'd much rather see Cisco playing than John Salmons, who did not get a shot of playing time tonight. Salmons sat so that Outlaw could have an extended look. Unfortunately, Outlaw didn't look that great. His outside shot was off, just like last year, and his two buckets were right at the rim.
Tony Mitchell and Hamady N'Diaye both saw the last couple of minutes of garbage time to make sure nobody important got injured. Neither did much, although N'Diaye had an impressive looking defensive rebound in his short stint.
The Kings play again Wednesday in their last Home Preseason game as they host the Warriors.
For Blazers fans, my Blazers Impressions:
- Portland has a real gem in Damian Lillard. He reminds me of a mix between the Kings two young Point Guards, Jimmer and Isaiah. Lillard has Jimmer's shooting ability with Isaiah's athleticism, a deadly combination. He struggled early, partially because I think he was being a bit tentative and deferential. He shone when he became more aggressive and actively looked for his shot. He'll need to get a lot more comfortable running an offense and preventing penetration by his man, but there is star potential here.
- I got the opposite vibe from Meyers Leonard. Leonard looked as raw as can be, picking up 5 fouls in just 15 minutes. He was not a particular hindrance to the Kings bigs at all. He's athletic and the potential's there, but he's going to need a lot of polishing to become a good consistent contributor.
- Speaking of the Blazers bigs, this is where I think their weakness lies. Aldridge is great, but aside from him, there aren't that many options. Defensively is the biggest problem, as even Aldridge isn't great there. J.J. Hickson is not a good defender, Meyers Leonard is raw, and Joel Freeland doesn't possess the physicality needed to be a defensive brute.
- Freeland did show a decent nose for rebounds though, and I think surprised Cousins a bit on one or two of them as he just snatched them away. Not much else other than the rebounds though.
- LaMarcus Aldridge might be second only to Dirk Nowitzki with that turnaround jumper. He was a bit off with his shot tonight though.
- The Kings got a bit lucky with how many threes Nic Batum missed. He shot just 2 of 9, but most of those were open shots. Batum did have one sequence I didn't like and that was a contested pull-up jumper at the top of the key relatively early in the shot clock. It didn't come close.
- J.J. Hickson's boxscore looks a lot better than he actually played. To his credit, he attacked the basket instead of settling for jumpers. I don't believe he shot one jumper. I think Hickson and Aldridge will be playing together a lot as Portland's best bigs, but I don't necessarily like that combo, especially defensively.
- Nolan Smith and Damian Lillard were both getting hounded by the Kings guards and it caused quite a few turnovers and fastbreak points. They'll need to get more comfortable in the halfcourt.
- Will Barton played just 9 minutes but managed to show off his athleticism with a nice alley-oop slam and a putback layup. He missed his only jumper attempt, but he looks like he could be a decent bench option.
- Luke Babbitt has a sweet stroke. That's not someone you can leave open. However, spot-up shooting appears to be the only thing he's good at. The Blazers were playing him at Power Forward for a couple stretches and that was a really bad experience.
- Victor Claver was someone I was interested in seeing because I remember studying up on him during the 2009 draft and debating whether I liked him or Casspi more. He played sparingly and he kind of looked like Rudy Fernandez. He didn't really do anything though, aside from a turnover when he tried to get a bit fancy once.
- Adam Morrison, I'm sorry, but you're done in the NBA. He was not effective in his short stint, and one of his shots was just a bad one, similar to the Nic Batum one that I didn't like.
- Sasha Pavlovic is a worse Luke Babbitt. I'd rather play and develop Babbitt than Pavlovic.
- All in all, I could see this being a tough year for Blazers fans. The team has talent, but I'm not sure they can bring the consistent effort needed to be a playoff contender. They also lack depth, particularly in the frontcourt. An injury or two there will really set them back.
- The team isn't wasting any time on the Sleep Train switch. While the PBP name was still on the signage and floor, the announcers called it Sleep Train arena several times. Also, after every three pointer made by the Kings, a train whistle sound effect aired.
- Pet Peeve jerseys of the night: A Kevin Durant shirsey and an old Kobe Bryant jersey. (I hate it when people come to games wearing jerseys of players/teams that aren't playing)
- Tyreke hit 5 or 6 threes in a row during warm-ups, all from different locations. Spotting up, he looks a lot better. The problem is that in-game he's almost always pulling-up rather than spotting up, and when that happens, the fade is noticeable.
- Bobby Jackson still looks like he could step out on the court and play some solid minutes.
- There was a small but dedicated crowd of Blazers fans in the building, who cheered particularly loudly for Damian Lillard.
- Arena attendance was announced at 9,328. It was probably more like 5-6,000.