The Sacramento Kings have almost no room for error now. With 23 games remaining, they have now fallen 11 games under .500 and five full games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Memphis Grizzlies, missing their All-NBA center with a merry cast of new (and crazy) roleplayers, aren't as good as their record and a solid opportunity for the Kings to take advantage.
Unfortunately, they didn't. The Grizzlies clamped down on defense and the Kings couldn't handle the pressure. They committed 25 turnovers on the night (7 coming from DeMarcus Cousins, 5 from Rajon Rondo), leading directly to 29 points for the Grizzlies. They also didn't do themselves any favors hitting their free throws, going an ugly 11/20 for a brutal 55%. Besides the turnovers, they were pretty average on offense, shooting 47% from the field and 35% from three, for a .540 TS% (which is about league average). But the turnovers and free throw woes were brutal in such a close game on the road.
On defense, the Tom Thibodeau effect was in full force. With the much-publicized presence of the man who basically invented the way the NBA plays defense today, it looked like the Kings made some major changes to the defensive system. The Kings made a conscious effort to force ballhandlers to the baseline, they frantically closed out on shooters, and defenders stunted and rotated with purpose, all hallmarks of a Thibodeau defense. For one game, gone was the familiar sight of Kings players floating around in open space, sagging off of shooters. And what a welcome change that was.
I don't know how long George Karl has been consulting Thibodeau about the defense, but the system literally changed overnight. Don't get me wrong, it was far from perfect. The Kings still aren't great at the new system yet. The Grizzlies still put up huge offensive numbers in the first half despite a dearth of offensive weapons at their disposal, although much of that is because the Kings sabotaged themselves with all of the turnovers. Mike Conley sliced through the defense with some perfect pocket passes, the Kings got beat backdoor several times, and too many times their rotations were off. The Grizzlies put up 59 points with a 121.7 offensive rating, building a lead that reached as high as 16.
But as the game progressed, the Kings defense tightened up and they cut down on the turnovers. The third quarter in particular was a terrific showing by the Kings. They scored 35 points in the quarter while only giving up 24; in per-possession numbers, that's a 139.6 offensive rating and a 94.0 defensive rating. Cousins was brilliant in the frame, scoring 12 of his 19 points on 5/7 shooting. The team did turn the ball over 5 times, but won the turnover battle by forcing 6 turnovers by the Grizzlies. The defensive intensity stayed consistent into the fourth quarter, allowing only 21 Grizzlies points for a stellar 82.3 defensive rating. The Kings were able to take an 87-85 lead on the Grizz with 9 minutes remaining.
Unfortunately, the Kings got sloppy again down the stretch and that doomed their chance of winning the ballgame. The Kings still don't seem disciplined on the offensive end, and that really showed when the time came to buckle down and execute. Cousins in particular only had 3 points in the fourth quarter on five shots, turning the ball over three more times and forcing the issue into the teeth of Memphis' defense. The Kings started double-teaming Zach Randolph on the catch in the post, a mistake in my opinion, and Zbo made them pay with passes out to the perimeter for open shots. Conley was brilliant in crunch time, scoring 10 of his 24 points in the last 9 minutes of the game to propel the Grizzlies to victory, many of them really tough shots against good defense.
This was a game that was right there for the taking, but the Kings couldn't get out of their own way. This is now 11 straight losses for the Kings in Memphis. On the bright side, the defensive system looks overhauled; I'm not going to start a parade for playing good defense against a Grizzlies team that is so depleted on the offensive end, but at the very least the focus will be now to clean up and sharpen the defense instead of banging their heads against a brick wall trying to make a broken system work. It may be too little too late for this season, but it will make the rest of the games much more watchable.
- Willie Cauley-Stein was brilliant tonight. Beyond his usual disruptiveness on defense, Willie was perfect from the field, hitting yet another smooth midrange jumper and crushing Zbo with this poster dunk. He only played 19 minutes, but its hard to complain because Quincy Acy was so good himself, even matching Willie's poster with a one-handed cram of his own.
- Seriously, what the heck was up with the free throw shooting? Everybody was missing free throws, from the good shooters (Ben McLemore), the decent (Cousins), and the bad (Rondo). It was a six point loss and the Kings missed nine free throws. Womp womp.
- When the defensive gameplan calls for the guard to go under the screener, to Rondo that means he doesn't have to play defense on that possession anymore. When you're going under the screen, its supposed to be easy. There is absolutely no excuse not to get through and challenge. Take a look at this play. Going under the screen is supposed to enable the guard to prevent penetration in exchange for giving up the jumper. But when Rondo goes under, Conley is still able to blow right by him right to the rim. This has been a problem all season long when Rondo goes under the screen and its unacceptable.
- Marco Belinelli came alive in the second half, scoring all 16 points in his half, which was another welcome sight. The Kings made a long-term commitment to him and need him to turn his season around.
- Vince Carter can still get up. The man is nearly forty and still throwing down some Sportscenter-worthy dunks. Vinsanity, indeed.
Tweet/Comment of the Night
From Hit4TheCycle in the Postgame Thread-
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