The Kings had the wildest start to their NBA season Wednesday night, squeaking through with an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets on a Buddy Hield buzzer-beater. There were two ties and two lead changes in the final three minutes of regulation, and then Sacramento scored the final six points of the extra session to earn the victory.
Here are four takeaways from a tremendously fun and nerve-racking game.
The coaching staff is already super confident in Tyrese Haliburton
With the game tied at 112 with under 30 seconds to play, the Kings drew up a set that had De’Aaron Fox attack off a ghost screen. The defense collapsed on the charging Fox in the lane, and he kicked it out to the rookie point guard for what could have been the game-winning 3-pointer. Haliburton missed, and the Kings had to get a stop on the other end to send the game into overtime.
It didn’t really matter that Haliburton missed the shot (if that sounds like revisionist history, it’s not!). What was important was that the coaching staff and his teammates had faith in Haliburton to take that shot in the biggest moment of the night. They trusted him to play the entire fourth quarter — in altitude, against a really good Denver team — in a tight game that happened to be the first of his NBA career.
The Kings were right to do so. Haliburton had 12 points, four assists, and a block in his debut. He also made all of his free throws on a night when the Kings left a few too many points at the line. And he had the poise to hit big threes earlier in the period, including one off a broken play that put Sacramento up four at the time.
Tyrese Haliburton drilled B2B big time threes pic.twitter.com/UqWpsaWuC7— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 24, 2020
Haliburton is ready to go. It’s a good thing the Kings realize that.
The veterans earned their keep
Cory Joseph and Harrison Barnes take a lot of flak because they’re older players who command a lot of minutes (and money) on an ostensibly rebuilding team, and it’s unclear if they’re actually worth it. Against Denver, they most certainly were.
Joseph had one of his best overall games in a long time. At the very least, it was the most impactful. He was aggressive attacking the basket to generate his own offense and to make plays for his teammates, particularly in the first half as the Kings rallied from an early deficit. He had 15 points and four assists, a combo of stats he only achieved twice last season in wins against the Rockets and the Clippers.
Joseph also made some stout defensive plays, including strips on both Will Barton and Nikola Jokić in the third quarter. His tenacity on the perimeter allowed the Kings to play three-guard lineups without sacrificing the defensive end of the floor. The grouping of Joseph/Haliburton/Hield was plus-6 in 12 minutes, and the trio of Joseph/Fox/Haliburton was plus-4 in 10 minutes. Those lineups are additionally useful because they allow the Kings to play Barnes at power forward, where he is most effective.
During the broadcast, Doug Christie made the comment that when you look up the word “professional” in the dictionary, Harrison Barnes’ picture is there. There was no better way of describing Barnes’ performance against the Nuggets. He did a really good job of settling the team when the game was getting out of hand, and then made crucial plays at critical points.
Barnes scored the first point of the game and also the first points of overtime when the Kings were teetering after surrendering their fourth-quarter lead. Barnes consistently found his spots on drives, duck-ins, and cuts against Michael Porter Jr. and Paul Millsap, matchups that favored Barnes due to his smarts against Porter and his quickness against Millsap.
Barnes was directly involved in Sacramento’s final three scores. He bullied past Barton for a lay-up to pull the Kings within two. Then he went coast-to-coast for a left-handed lay-up after Fox’s block, and he created the turnover on Denver’s last possession by deflecting the ball from Jokic. That Barnes performance earned 42 minutes, even if it meant Glenn Robinson III was glued to the bench for the entirety of the game.
The Kings dominated the offensive glass
Sacramento had 17 offensive rebounds, collecting 31 percent of their misses. Those extra chances were necessary because the Kings shot worse than the Nuggets from the field and the free-throw line. Volume was their only chance at victory.
Two of Sacramento’s most memorable plays of the game came on offensive rebounds. Hield’s tip-in to win the game was the highlight, but Richaun Holmes had another buzzer-beating tip-in at the end of the first half. Imagine where the Kings would be without those two points. Holmes had a tough night trying to defend Jokic, but his six offensive boards were massive.
Good luck keeping De’Aaron Fox out of the lane
The game changed in the third quarter, when the Kings turned a seven-point deficit into a five-point lead. Fox was the key to that swing, as he scored 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field while making both of his free throws. It was his best stretch of the game, when he focused on getting into the paint instead of settling for midrange pull-ups — the seven midrangers Fox took were far too many for a shooter of his caliber.
Look at Fox’s speed on these plays. There’s no hope for the Nuggets, who admittedly don’t have great point guard defenders, to keep up with him.
Fox’s best moment in the paint actually came on the defensive end when he challenged Barton at the rim with 10 seconds to go. It was another instance of Fox using his speed, this time to catch up with a player who beat him backdoor. Fox is the leader of the Kings, and he demonstrated that by taking control in the second half and helping close the game.
Kings coach Luke Walton, Buddy Hield and De'Aaron Fox on the significance of his block late to help seal the season opening win in Denver tonight. pic.twitter.com/eJLqazDG5X— Sean Cunningham (@SeanCunningham) December 24, 2020
Apologies to Hield and Bagley, who didn’t get much of a mention in this one, and to Mark Jones and Christie, who were phenomenal on the broadcast, but there are 71 games to go. May they all be as enjoyable as this was.