How Warriors' defense stifled Kings star Sabonis in Game 1


SACRAMENTO -- By point totals alone, it looked like Sacramento Kings star center Domantas Sabonis was in for a big night when he scored eight points in the first quarter of the Warriors' 126-123 loss to the Kings on Saturday night at Golden 1 Center in Game 1 of this first-round matchup in the Western Conference playoffs. 

But Sabonis scored only four points the rest of the game. His eight points in that first quarter came from two free throws, a layup where Sabonis took it to Warriors center Kevon Looney, an easy dunk off Draymond Green and Klay Thompson both jumping at what they expected would be a Kevin Huerter layup attempt and a putback dunk after Green blocked a Keegan Murray dunk attempt. 

Right from the start, the Warriors showed their hand at how they were going to challenge Sabonis. 

There are two parts of the Kings' historically potent offense that the Warriors honed in on: The pick-and-roll between De'Aaron Fox and Sabonis, as well as dribble handoffs with Sabonis. Steve Kerr prior to the game compared Sacramento's style to that of the Warriors' early on in how they use Sabonis almost how Kerr initiated the offense through a strong passer in Andrew Bogut.

So, Kerr and the Warriors forced Sabonis to be a shooter.

Early in the first quarter, they dared him to shoot a wide-open 3-pointer. He missed. About four minutes into the game, the Warriors' defense then didn't bother with Sabonis on a 20-foot jumper. Another miss. 

All game long, the Warriors sagged off Sabonis, trying to take away the Kings' strengths and force Sabonis to be something he isn't. Numbers-wise, the strategy worked. 

"I thought our guys did a good job," Kerr said after the loss when asked about Sabonis' shooting struggles. "We forced him into some tough shots. We did some good things, but not enough to win the game." 

Sabonis scored two points in the second quarter, was held scoreless in the third and didn't score in the fourth until there were three minutes left. Those two points were off a dunk, his final two points of the night. 

Coming into Saturday night, Sabonis averaged 21.3 points over three games against the Warriors in the regular season. He shot 52.4 percent from the field in those three games, going 22-of-42 shooting. But in Game 1, Sabonis was 5 of 17 from the field, easily his worst shooting night of the season. 

Thriving in Mike Brown's offense, Sabonis shot a career-high 61.5 percent from the field this season, his third All-Star campaign and first with the Kings. His 29.4-percent clip against the Warriors was nearly 4 percent worse than any other game he had. You'd have to go all the way back to Oct. 31, the sixth game of the season, when Sabonis had an ice-cold performance similar to the opening of the postseason. 

The Warriors held Sabonis to 12 points, his lowest total since scoring 11 on March 20, which was a seven-point loss to the Utah Jazz. Sabonis scored fewer than 13 points only 10 times in the regular season, and the Kings went 5-5 in said games. He also was forced into four turnovers, tying his season high that had only been matched once before Saturday night.

"Just silly misses," Sabonis said. "Wrong reads, putting myself in difficult situations. Basically just have to do a better job of reading the game and not putting myself in a situation where I have to force a shot." 

Looney defended Sabonis brilliantly. The always underrated Warriors center contested seven Sabonis misses. He blocked one, and forced Sabonis into an Andrew Wiggins block another time. Green also contested two Sabonis misses, and the 6-foot-11 left-hander missed three jumpers with nobody around him. 

But it was Looney's defense that stood out most and frustrated Sabonis on numerous possessions. Looney had no problem going chest-to-chest with Sabonis. He stayed vertical while cutting off Sabonis' left side. It was a masterclass by someone who can thrive playing both team defense and taking on the challenge of an individual battle, without receiving the outside credit he usually deserves. 

At halftime, Looney led all players in plus/minus with a plus-14. Sabonis was the worst of both teams with a minus-10. He finished as a minus-9, second-worst on the Kings to only Harrison Barnes' minus-10.

Will Sabonis shoot under 30 percent from the field for the rest of this series? Likely not. The Warriors also can gamble that Malik Monk isn't going to continue to score 32 points off the bench and go 14 of 14 from the free-throw line, or that Trey Lyles isn't going to give Sacramento 16 points and four 3-pointers as another spark off the bench. 

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One of the best big men in basketball was limited in ways he isn't used to. The odds are in his favor going forward. The same also goes for the Warriors. 

They have won a road playoff game in 27 consecutive series, an NBA record that the Warriors will look to extend. The Warriors since 2015, Kerr's first season as their head coach, have the most wins following a playoff loss, going 24-8. Adjustments must be made, though there's a reason Kerr feels the Warriors are in a "pretty good place" going into Monday night's Game 2. 

Stifling Sabonis is among the biggest reasons why. 

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