The latest test for this surging Kings team came toward the end of the fourth quarter Tuesday night in Memphis. They’d controlled the game’s first 44 minutes and led by 12 as the clock ticked under four minutes. That’s when the long, physical Grizzlies defense — which forced the most turnovers in the NBA a season ago — cranked up their pressure and activity to a playoff level.
The Kings didn’t handle it well. Their flowing offense, the league’s most efficient unit, stalled. Kevin Huerter, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk struggled to pass out of double-teams or make themselves available for clean outlets. The hectic scramble led to six Sacramento turnovers in the final four minutes, handing the Grizzlies transition opportunities to fly back into the game.
Here’s an example. The Kings are timidly attempting to bleed the clock in the final minute and the Grizzlies are just springing double-teams all over the court awaiting a mistake. Fox tosses a floating pass that Dillon Brooks tips. Ja Morant is dunking on the other end three seconds later.
The Kings still won, 113-109, an escape job that bumped their winning streak to seven games, the longest for the franchise since November 2004. They’re now 10-6 and only a half-game out of the top spot in a muddled West. So much is going well in the first month of Mike Brown’s first season, but so much remains to be cleaned up if the ambitions of ending the 16-season playoff drought extend into an actual desire to be a threat once in the bracket.
Remember that spectacular Fox 32-foot buzzer-beater in Orlando a couple of weeks ago? It shouldn’t have been necessary. The Kings led the Magic by two points with 11.7 seconds left in overtime and held possession. They needed to inbound the basketball, protect it and make free throws. They inbounded it but didn’t protect it. Monk was trapped in the corner and threw a frantic pass cross-court that gave the Magic a steal and score-tying layup.
Here’s the sequence.
The sting of that mistake would be erased almost immediately. Brown didn’t call timeout and Fox took a few dribbles and bagged that near half-court bomb. The Kings left Orlando with an imperfect win just as they’d scatter out of Memphis on Tuesday with a victory despite getting outscored 19-11 in the final 3:19 due to six dangerous turnovers.
A 10-6 record looks much different from 8-8. It’s a whole lot more appetizing to absorb lessons within wins than agonizing losses. This is the Kings’ most successful stretch of regular-season basketball in nearly two decades. There’s plenty to celebrate. But relevant NBA teams find themselves in tense late-game scenarios at the season’s defining moments. Better execution will be necessary to level up.
Here are a few other notes from the win in Memphis.
Harrison Barnes proved to be the safest landing spot for the Kings in the final couple of minutes. This next clip isn’t spectacular. Nothing about Barnes’ game would be described as such. But he corrals the rebound that Kevin Huerter saves, surveys the floor and then comfortably dribbles himself into a space that forces Memphis to foul.
Barnes would hit the two ensuing free throws to put the Kings up five. He’d get fouled on the next possession and hit two more free throws to put the Kings up six. Brown singled Barnes out to open his news conference in Memphis as the stabilizing force at a scattered time that guided the Kings across the finish line.
This might’ve been Barnes’ best night of the early season. He scored 26 points, hit four 3s (including two mammoth ones in the fourth quarter) and made all eight of his free throws. A game before, he scored 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting in a narrow home win over the Pistons. His overall numbers are still down. But he just jolted his 3-point percentage from 25 to nearly 30 percent in two nights and seems to be waking up offensively.
From a long-term roster management standpoint, there’s a credible argument the Kings should’ve moved off Barnes in recent seasons for a future draft pick. He’s on an expiring deal and has a market. But they’ve always planned on competing this season and — as has been obvious the past two games — they have a better chance of winning games with Barnes eating up 31 minutes on the wing rather than the alternatives.
Fox was announced as the Player of the Week in the West on Tuesday morning and backed it up with a packed stat line: 32 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals. Until the final minutes, he outplayed Morant.
This was a quote from Steve Kerr on Fox last week before the Kings and Warriors met: “He’s making shots. You always look at the whole game, but when De’Aaron Fox makes shots and you have to go out there on the perimeter to guard him, he’s one of the fastest guys in the league. Then he gets downhill and he’s really tough to stop. I think traditionally, in his career, when he makes the 3-point shot, he’s a handful. If he’s not shooting that well, he’s easier to guard. Pack the paint. He’s shooting the ball well. So he’s a handful.”
Fox made five 3s against the Grizzlies, a pair of mid-range jumpers, a couple of shots in floater range and another couple at the rim. He’s scoring right now at every level. But it’s the threat of the 3 that stretches defenses thin and jumbles up prior scouting reports. With those five makes (on six attempts), Fox is now shooting 40.1 percent from 3 on the season. He finished last season at 29.7 percent. That’s a canyon of a difference.
• Kevin Huerter made four of his seven 3s against the Grizzlies. That’s a notable result for his overall season total. It gives him 59 makes on 118 attempts. That’s exactly half. Huerter sits at 50 percent from 3 through 16 games.
There are 40 players in the league who have taken at least 100 3s this season. Only 11 of the 40 have made even 40 percent of them. Only two others besides Huerter — Steph Curry and Desmond Bane — have made better than 44 percent. Curry is at 44.7. Bane is at 45.1. Huerter is on an unbelievable hot streak.
• Keegan Murray continues to struggle on the road. He went 1-of-8 shooting in a quiet 24-minute showing, ceding closing duties to Monk and Davion Mitchell. Murray has made 51.9 percent of his shots in Sacramento games this season and only 31.7 percent of his shots away from Golden 1 Center.
• Thirteen more rebounds for Domantas Sabonis. He’s averaging 11.1 on the season, tying him for eighth most in the league.
• The Kings are in Atlanta on Wednesday night. It’s the rough side of a challenging back-to-back. The Hawks are 6-3 at home this season. If the Kings can stretch the win streak to eight games, it’ll be the longest streak since November 2003. Check out the box score from the eighth of those wins. They faced the New Jersey Nets. Jason Kidd was the opposing point guard.
(Photo of Harrison Barnes: Justin Ford / Getty Images)