Its true that the Philadelphia 76ers have been playing better recently. They just traded for Ish Smith, who has been a real surprise this year for New Orleans, and added Mike D'Antoni to their coaching staff. They beat the Phoenix Suns the other night and fought the Utah Jazz down to the wire in their last game.
But it is also true that the Sixers looked like the far better organized and hungry team tonight.
These are essentially the two main reasons Philly won. They were quicker and faster than the Kings to every loose ball. They viciously assaulted the glass while their Sacramento counterparts leaked out to get on the break, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds and outrebounding the Kings 53-46. They flew around the court defensively, blocking nine shots and nabbing 10 steals. The Sixers were a step ahead of the Kings in nearly all effort categories.
But that's not the end of the story. The Sixers are small, but fast, and they found ways to exploit that advantage. They repeatedly beat the Kings down the court and harassed the passing lanes. Smith was impressive breaking down the Kings defense, taking several pages out of Steve Nash's Suns playbook, and picked the right buttons to push at the right time, whether it was a weakside three when the Kings sagged too far in the paint or a Nerlens Noel alley-oop when the Kings overcommitted to the ballhandler. They knew they didn't have an answer for DeMarcus Cousins' strength in the post, so they fronted and tried to beat him with physicality and a swarm on defense.
That is, when the Kings decided to go down to the post. George Karl's philosophy is to give the players all kinds of freedom on offense. This philosophy translates to an offensive system that is simple, yet easily predictable. The sets only go one or two options deep before it devolves into complete freelancing by the players. It also fails to take strategic advantage of the Kings' strengths. Tonight, it was clear that the biggest advantage the Kings had was playing through Boogie on the block. It was disappointing to see so many offensive possessions that didn't leverage that, whether through a straight post-up or drawing a double team to create a four-on-three situation. Cousins scored 21 points, drawing 20 free throws, but only shot 4/10 from the field.
And then there are the turnovers. Karl wants the Kings to play fast, but it is becoming increasingly alarming how careless they are with the ball. In trying to play fast, the Kings are often rushing, putting players in undesireable positions, whether its Omri Casspi and Ben McLemore trying to make too many plays off the dribble, Darren Collison forcing the action against multiple defenders, or Rajon Rondo throwing the ball all over the court. The sets the Kings run are conducive to telegraphed passes across the court which are easily picked off. The Kings once again eclipsed the 20 turnover mark with 22 total tonight, leading to 28 Philly points.
And yet, the Kings were right there to the end of the game based on sheer talent. Marco Belinelli exploded for his best night of the season with 28 points. The Kings offense off the bench is so much based on Belinelli creating separation off of pindowns that if he's off or marked too closely the offense bogs down. The Kings defense tends to give up too many threes, preferring to sag in the paint, but for the most part the Sixers couldn't take advantage, hitting only 9/31 three pointers. A more talented shooting team would have ripped the Kings a new one. The Sixers are playing better, they are well-coached, but they still lack the talent to truly impose their will on a team, the Kings were the beneficiaries for a night.
It doesn't take the sting off this Kings loss in any way though. After coming a hair within the elusive eight seed, the Kings have dropped back into the shadows with three straight losses, two of which to teams with worse records than they have. This flat out is not a playoff team at the moment, yet this team sometimes plays as coolly as if they have multiple deep runs under their belt. This team needs both an attitude adjustment and a more structured scheme to operate in, otherwise its going to be another long season of high turnovers, inconsistent play, and lifeless effort in Sacramento.
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