The Kings once again put themselves against a top team in the Western Conference, leading the Rockets by four with under four minutes to play in Houston.
But the Kings made too many unforced errors in the final minutes to hold on to the lead. They surrendered a 9-0 run as James Harden took control of the game late and couldn’t hit enough jumpers to keep pace as they lost 122-119, falling to 3-2 on the season.
Energy wasn’t the problem. The Kings once again came out with an excellent effort to start the game. Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes carried the scoring load early. Barnes was easily able to bully James Harden on his way to the rim, while Holmes’ floater was working throughout.
Buddy Hield’s shooting took a while to get going. He hit his first three near the end of the first quarter when he relocated to the corner after a bad pass to put the Kings up 23-19, but he didn’t seem to find his rhythm until the end of the second quarter when he hit a three in transition off a pass from De’Aaron Fox, and the lid finally came off the rim for him. Hield hit another three on the ensuing possession off a screen, and he finished with five of Sacramento’s 11 3-pointers.
The third quarter looked like it was going to be a problem for the Kings yet again, as Marvin Bagley in particular was having a tough time to start the second half. He kept calling for the ball in the post, but he couldn’t create any advantage against the Rockets interior defense. He missed his first six shots and had three turnovers, all in the post.
Once Bagley exited the game in the third, which happened to coincide with Tyrese Haliburton coming in, the Kings made their run. Nemanja Bjelica was also a key factor in Sacramento’s offense opening up. Bjelica had some nice moves in the post, including a sweet feed to a slipping Barnes to beat the Rockets’ switching scheme.
Great work from the Kings with Bjelica in the post, Tate is calling for Gordon to switch the split action but Barnes slips and Gordon has no chance to recover pic.twitter.com/CY9oFx6j2h— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) January 1, 2021
Meanwhile, Haliburton was a menace on the other end in the passing lanes, allowing the Kings to get points in transition. The Rockets threw some lazy entry passes, but the rookie guard was also just faster to the ball on multiple instances.
Haliburton making plays on defense pic.twitter.com/7mf6lm5uXg— Kings on NBCS (@NBCSKings) January 1, 2021
The Kings held the lead for most of the fourth quarter, going up by as much as seven until Harden finally found his mojo. He attacked the rim, earning double-digit free throws in the period thanks to a friendly whistle. Meanwhile, the Kings missed bunnies at the rim and took ill-advised jumpers. Hield also just gave the ball away in the backcourt to PJ Tucker, which let Harden score again.
Still, the Kings had a chance to tie the game more than once, and they set up good looks for Hield each time, but he couldn’t convert. It was also strange not to see Bjelica on the floor when the Kings needed a 3-pointer at the end of the game. Nevertheless, the coaching staff decided to ride with their starting five with Haliburton in Bagley’s place, valuing Holmes’ rebounding and rolling over Bjelica’s spacing.
It’s a disappointing loss but by no means a bad one. The Kings played hard and almost got the win. They still head into 2021 with a winning record.