Kings Analysis

Kings showing defensive promise to fulfill Brown's season-long plea

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SACRAMENTO – Sixty-six games into the 2023-24 NBA season, Kings coach Mike Brown finally got what he’s been asking for all season. 

Well, 66-ish games. 

It started Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, a 129-94 win, and carried over into a 120-107 victory in the second half of their back-to-back against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. 

Saturday’s showing, though, might have opened Brown’s eyes more than any other game has, despite a physical 98-91 loss to the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed New York Knicks. 

After the Kings displayed a historic offense last season which thrived off pace, screening and ball movement, Brown has shifted the team’s focus to the other side of the ball – an area he specializes in. 

Sacramento’s defensive effort in its last three games was a promising start for Brown. 

“One hundred percent. One hundred percent,” Brown said postgame Saturday when asked if the recent defensive showing is what he’d been asking for all season. “We're more than capable. And, again, for people to say, ‘Hey, just concentrate on offense.’ But our guys are capable defenders, too, when they want to -- and they've shown it the last three games.” 

Entering Tuesday’s contest, the Bucks averaged 120.9 points per game and ranked fifth (118.7) in offensive rating. The Kings held them to just 94 points Tuesday night, which was just the second time Milwaukee scored fewer than 95 points this season. 

The following night, the Lakers, high off momentum after two big wins against the Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves, came into Golden 1 Center and dropped their fourth game of the season to the Kings. They averaged 117.3 points this season before suffering a 120-107 loss in Sacramento. 

A large part of both wins was the presence of Kings guard Keon Ellis, whose lockdown defense limited Bucks star guard Damian Lillard and then matched that defensive intensity against Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, who has been on a hot stretch since January. 

Ellis held Lillard to just 10 points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field and 1 of 6 from behind the arc after the 3-point machine was averaging 24.4 points on 42.3 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from downtown this season. 

Russell, who averaged 21.6 points on 47.5-percent shooting from the field and 44.9 percent from 3-point range since January, finished Wednesday’s game with six points on 2-of-9 shooting from the field and 1 of 4 from deep. 

While Saturday’s assignment wasn’t as easy thanks to a 42-point outburst by Knicks All-Star guard Jalen Brunson, Brown still was content with his team’s defensive effort elsewhere. 

“You got to give a lot of credit to Jalen, he's a hell of a player,” Brown said. “I don't know if, Steph [Curry], maybe, I don't know if we blitzed anybody as much as we did Jalen tonight. We tried to send two [players] at him and he still scored 42 points over 50 percent from the field. The rest of the team shot 34 percent, scored 56 points. And they shot 21 percent from the 3. Jalen shot 50 percent from the 3 and over 50 percent from the field. We sent the double-team at him every single time he came off the pick-and-roll in the second half and probably half the time or so in the first half. He's a hell of a player. Big game. He stepped up and he really helped them get it done tonight.

“I can't be mad at our guys' effort or anything like that because I thought we tried to play hard. But when you have a team at 98 points on 43 percent and we score 91 and one of our big things is spraying the basketball, we go 3-for-9, that's a big part of our identity that we didn't bring to the table tonight.”

Kings star guard De'Aaron Fox had a similar attitude about the team's effort.

"Outside of JB, I think we did a great job," Fox said postgame. "Obviously, he shoots 17 for 28, like 60-something percent and we still hold that team to 43 percent. So outside of him, we did a great job. But I mean he had almost half of their points, so we have to do a better job of guarding the star player. But other than that, I think we did a decent job and he also made some difficult shots as well.

"But I think as a whole defensively, I would say we did a pretty good job. Offensively, we shot 35, 27 [percent]. We have to be better on the offensive end. There are not many games you're going to win shooting that low of percentages."

The Knicks averaged 112.2 points before Saturday’s game in Sacramento, with the Kings averaging 118.4.

Both teams were held to under 100 points Saturday, a testament to just how physical the matchup was on the defensive end of the floor. Brown believes New York's physicality impacted Sacramento's offensive flow, as several players got open looks but shots just weren't falling.

De'Aaron Fox struggled to get going early, but he finished with 20 points on 5-of-19 shooting from the field and 2 of 7 from 3-point range with seven rebounds, nine assists, two steals and three turnovers.

Kevin Huerter was held scoreless in 16 minutes of action, missing all three of his shot attempts. And fresh off a hot game against the Lakers, Keegan Murray finished with 11 points in 33 minutes on 3-of-12 shooting from the field and 1 of 7 from downtown.

Domantas Sabonis was one of the few bright spots early for the Kings, but he cooled off in the second half after the Knicks made defensive adjustments to contain the Lithuanian big man later in the game.

Brown thought his guys did enough on the defensive end of the floor to get the win, but believes the offensive struggles prevented the Kings from crossing the finish line in the end.

And while the emphasis has been on defense all season, with positive promise over the last week, the coach doesn't want the Kings to turn their backs on where they have thrived since last season.

"We practice offense more than we do defense, whether it’s shootaround, normal practice or anything," Brown said. "We probably have two defensive drills to four offensive drills every practice. But having said that, I know it takes some time. I knew our guys were capable and they're starting to respond. We just need to continue to make sure we don't lose our identity on the offensive floor, too. And part of that is our sprays. We do a hell of a job with the basketball.

"In our last two losses, I think if Houston was the last loss before this, we faced two physical defensive teams that play the same way, and they just dare you to spray the basketball. And if you don't, it's going to be a slugfest and anybody can win in a slug pass especially if you're playing defense the way we are, we’ll still give ourselves a chance. But we would have had a better chance if we would have sprayed it all night.”

The Kings are making defensive strides. They're matching some of the most physical team's physicality. And with the final stretch of the regular season underway, the intensity has come at the right time because, as we know, the playoffs are a whole different beast.

But Brown's season-long message finally clicking might give him enough confidence in his team to match with whoever is in front of them in the postseason.

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