A loss is a loss is a loss. Whether it be by blowout or a buzzer beater, it still counts the same. But boy, did this one hurt. The Kings should have won this game, and probably would have if they had played more cohesively in the 4th quarter.
Sacramento got off to a hot start and fought off several Detroit runs with runs of their own, but they were derailed late, as Detroit came back to take the lead for good after two consecutive three pointers by Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey gave Detroit a 108-104 lead with 1:35 left.
Stuckey was absolutely brilliant for the Pistons, getting to the basket or the free throw line seemingly every time he decided to attack. He finished with a game and season-high 36 points. Rookie Brandon Knight joined Stuckey in having a big night as he finished with 23 points (4-6 from three) and a career-high 10 assists to zero turnovers. Tayshaun Prince chipped in with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks and finished 10-19 from the field after starting out 2-10.
DeMarcus Cousins, who wasn't even supposed to play according to early reports today, fought through the pain and finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 assists in just 32 minutes. Marcus Thornton added 24 points and 3 steals. In a surprise decision, Coach Smart changed up his starting lineup to add Isaiah Thomas and remove John Salmons, and it seemed to pay dividends, as the Kings ran a much faster and more efficient offense. Thomas himself finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 23 minutes.
The Kings as a team moved the ball exceedingly well for most of the game, and finished with a season-high 25 assists. Tyreke Evans led the team with 9, and Jimmer and Isaiah chipped in 4 each. However, that ball movement ceased in the pivotal 4th quarter, during which the Kings had just one assist.
The game started out with probably the best first quarter the Kings have played to date. With Isaiah running the offense and pushing the tempo, the Kings got off to a great start, getting out to an 11 point lead near the end of the 4th. The only thing keeping Detroit in the game was Stuckey, as the Kings had absolutely no answer for him, a problem that persisted throughout the game. Stuckey had 16 points in the quarter alone.
Conversely the Pistons had no real answer for DeMarcus Cousins and to a lesser extent, Jason Thompson. DeMarcus was abusing the Pistons inside and out, and probably should have gotten the ball even more than he did, particularly late in the game. Thompson finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks, and had a couple of shots just rim out. On the other side of the ball, Greg Monroe could not get anything going. He was held to just 3 points on 1-7 shooting in 33 minutes. Chuck Hayes did a particularly good job defending Monroe when he was in, but Thompson and Cousins did as well.
For the next couple of quarters, the game seemed to alternate between 10-2 or 13-4 runs by each team. It was a high scoring, fast-paced affair, and while the Pistons normally play at a very slow pace, it seemed they had little trouble adjusting. Detroit finished with 30 fast break points and the Kings had 29, which tells you a little bit about just how quickly this game was going back and forth.
The 4th quarter is where the game switched from Sacramento fighting to maintain control to trying to regain control. Detroit had ended the 3rd with a bit of a run in the last couple minutes to cut the lead to just two points, and they started the quarter off with possession. They tied it on the first possession and the game was a back and forth affair from there up until the aforementioned big three pointers from Knight and Stuckey.
With 3 minutes left, Tyreke Evans nailed a short jumper to give Sacramento the lead at 104-102. The Pistons quickly came back and tried to take it inside, but solid D by the Kings forced a miss and DeMarcus snatched the rebound and immediately dished to a streaking Tyreke Evans. Evans passed it up to Thornton and the Kings were on a 2 on 1 with only Tayshaun Prince in between. Thornton didn't catch the ball cleanly, but he recovered and threw up a floater off the backboard that should have put the Kings up by 4. Instead, the ball popped in and out, and Prince grabbed the rebound and took it the other way, with the Pistons now having numbers. Prince drove and kicked to a wide open Brandon Knight, who nailed the triple to give Detroit the 105-104 lead with 2:19 seconds left.
The following possession was a Kings fan's worst nightmare.
There was plenty of time. The Kings just needed to score and get a good shot. So what happens? Tyreke Evans is the only one to touch the ball the entire possession. Tyreke Evans, career 26.8% from three, decides to try to play the hero and shoots a semi-contested three pointer that ends up not even close. Detroit comes the other way, Tyreke comes over to help on a driving Brandon Knight, and Knight dishes to a wide open Rodney Stuckey for his own three, which also falls. Now Stuckey is no great shakes as a three point shooter himself (career 27.8%), but he has made nearly 35% of his attempts this year, and had killed the Kings all game. This habit of overhelping is a bad tendency a lot of the players on this Kings team has, and it has hurt them many, many times.
The Kings never recovered, and a few attempts at three pointers by Thornton and Evans missed badly as Detroit came up with the come from behind win at home. It was infuriating.
This is also perhaps the first game for me where I really felt disappointed in Keith Smart's coaching. I really liked the decision to start Thomas and bench Salmons. After all, Salmons had been playing terribly and the Kings played better with Isaiah on the floor. That proved true tonight in the 1st quarter as well.
Yet when the Kings offense stagnated in the pivotal 4th quarter, Isaiah was nowhere to be found. He came in for just one possession near the end as a defensive substitution. Instead John Salmons and Jimmer Fredette had most of that playing time. Jimmer did have a decent game, finishing with 9 points and 4 assists in 19 minutes, but he's also a liability on defense (and couldn't guard Knight, Gordon or Stuckey) and doesn't do as good a job of pushing the tempo as Isaiah. Salmons played 22 minutes off the bench and really didn't contribute anything that warranted late game playing time. He finished with 5 points on 2-5 from the field, and he definitely wasn't a solution for Prince, Knight or Stuckey, as those three continued to do whatever they wanted. I can't prove it, but I think the Kings would have won this basketball game if Isaiah had played significant minutes in the final period.
I also disagree with Travis Outlaw seeing any court time at all. I know he got just 4 minutes, but he has done absolutely nothing to earn playing time while Donté has proven to be far more effective. I'd even rather have Hickson in the game than Outlaw, because at least Hickson can rebound. Hickson was pulled from the game after he failed to hustle down the court and follow up on a Salmons breakaway in case he missed.
This is a very young team, and I thought there were a lot of positives tonight in the ball movement. But the defense really needs to step up, especially on penetration and overhelping. The Kings will get a chance to redeem themselves on Sunday when they face another excellent scoring guard in probable Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving in Cleveland this Sunday.