The Kings came into Friday with a huge projected advantage over a depleted Magic team on the second night of a back-to-back after losing to Golden State the night before.
Unfortunately, Sacramento’s health advantage dissipated pregame when it was announced that both De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III would be missing the matchup. All of a sudden, the Kings were thrust into an unfamiliar position of playing without their floor general. It didn’t go well, and they lost 123-112.
The impact of Fox’s absence was felt immediately. The Kings turned the ball over ten times in the first half. It only led to seven points for Orlando, but that resulted in fewer shot attempts. Considering Sacramento made nearly 55 percent of its field-goal attempts in the first half, that difference was palpable. The Kings also had to rely on heavier minutes from Glenn Robinson III, who started in Bagley’s place; he shot 1-of-5 from the field and was responsible for three turnovers and a flagrant foul in the opening half.
The real problem in the first half, though, was Nikola Vucevic, who was just too good for the Sacramento defense. He scored 23 points on 13 shot attempts, spotting up for three, driving to the basket, and even doing some work in the post. The Kings had some success when Vucevic was on the bench, but not much when the Orlando center was on the floor.
After Vucevic helped the Magic build a lead, Michael Carter-Williams went on a tear to start the third, scoring four times directly at the basket, a clear sign that the Kings missed Fox in their point of attack defense. Sacramento only trailed by five at halftime but surrendered a 15-1 lead in the third to fall behind by 17. At that point, Luke Walton pulled all of the starters for a lineup featuring Hassan Whiteside, Nemanja Bjelica, DaQuan Jeffries (in his first action of the season), Cory Joseph, and Kyle Guy.
That all-bench group had a dead cat bounce, and their overall effort served to mask a lack of execution, which is totally understandable, since there’s no chance those five have ever practiced together. But that energy really turned the game around. Jeffries played good defense on the Orlando guards, Whiteside played some bully-ball in the paint, and Guy/Bjelica provided some shooting. After trailing by as many as 20 in the period, the Kings entered the fourth trailing by 10.
Alas, the starters couldn’t keep the momentum going. Orlando extended the lead in the fourth thanks to more dominance from Vucevic, who finished with 42 points.
It’s hard to take too many positives from defeat, but the bench almost saved the game. Bjelica looked mostly comfortable, not like someone who hadn’t played since Jan. 9. Jeffries was instantly one of the team’s best defenders, and he capably handled the ball while making some nice feeds and reads. Guy also sparked the offense. All three made legitimate cases for playing time either in an expanded rotation or in place of Robinson.
This wasn’t the bounce back the Kings hoped for after the loss to the Sixers. It showed that even though this team is in playoff contention, there is still a lot of work to do.