The Kings were on the receiving end of a late gift heading into tipoff this afternoon. Rockets star James Harden went through warmups, but was a late scratch with a right ankle sprain he suffered at the end of Thursday's 122-119 victory over Sacramento when he collided with John Wall on a congested inbound.
This is the play from Thursday night where James Harden hurt his ankle. pic.twitter.com/tLAZFF8VKw
— Salman Ali (@SalmanAliNBA) January 2, 2021
So James Harden is out for the Rockets with a sprained ankle, and Tyrese Haliburton is out for the Kings with a bone bruise in his wrist. That sounds like an even trade to me.
The game started with a wild offensive flurry from both teams. The Kings had no answer for Christian Wood or John Wall, who continues to look pretty damn impressive considering the severity of injury he's coming back from.
With Haliburton out of the lineup, Luke Walton subbed out Fox a bit earlier than usual and in those difficult minutes without an above-average creator on the floor, Buddy Hield really came through and carried the offensive load until Fox checked back in. Fox looked damn near unstoppable in his second run and finished the quarter with 10 points on perfect 4/4 shooting from the field.
The first quarter ended with an even 36-36 tie. No defense was played. The Kings dominated the paint with a 22-8 points-in-the-paint scoring advantage, but the Rockets dominated the perimeter with scorching 6-12 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Kings fell behind in the 2nd quarter thanks to a Haliburton-less bench unit that struggled to get anything going offensively. Houston really outplayed Sacramento for a significant run here and extended the lead to 7, but Marvin Bagley, who struggled mightily in the first quarter, came alive late in the 2nd and helped the Kings brute force their way to a tie with relentless pressure in the paint. Spacing is always going to be an issue with the Richaun Holmes - Marvin Bagley frontcourt, but they have, on occasion, made up for that lack of space with total paint control, and we saw that again here to close out the half. 64-64 going into halftime.
The Kings got a significant break to open the 2nd half as Christian Wood picked up an early 5th foul and had to sub out. Unfortunately the Kings couldn't take advantage of Wood's absence, and instead got cooked by John Wall repeatedly. Buddy Hield's shooting once again kept the Kings within striking distance, but the Rockets had some early momentum here thanks to Wall's dominance. Sacramento's defense was just incredibly lazy here. There were several instances where Wall was already at the rim before the Kings had their defense set, and often resulted in an easy bucket for the Rockets or an out-of-position foul. I don't know how much of this was Wall returning to form vs. the Kings turning in a truly pathetic defensive stretch, but they had no answer for him all night.
Sacramento was able to salvage the quarter in the closing minutes after Wall subbed out and the Rockets offense was forced to rely on a struggling DeMarcus Cousins. Fox picked his game up with Wall on the bench, and what was a 7-point Rockets lead quickly shrunk to 2 heading in the 4th quarter. 83-81 Rockets.
The Kings were completely stuck in the mud to start the 4th. The Rockets kept scoring and extended the lead to 11, the largest lead for either team to this point. I've said this on multiple occasions in this recap already, but man the absence of Tyrese Haliburton was felt on the Kings bench unit all night long.
Houston never lost control from there, and the second half against the Rockets tonight was the worst half of basketball we've seen out of the Kings all season. There was no creativity offensively, and no urgency defensively as Houston walked to the paint for layup after layup without much resistance.
Sacramento scored 64 points in the first half, but could only come up with 30 total points in the second half, including a putrid 13-point 4th quarter.
It's also worth noting here that Marvin Bagley didn't see the floor as part of the crunch time rotation again tonight. That is becoming a trend for Luke Walton, and while I can't argue that he's earned a crunch time spot with his play, Bagley's development is something we're all watching closely, and yes, it's still very early, but there hasn't been a lot of good things happening there.
On that note, in what is sure to spark more discussion than a terrible early-season loss to the Harden-less Rockets, Marvin Bagley's dad has requested a trade for his son before the final buzzer. The tweet has since been deleted, but screenshots live forever.
lol what a tool pic.twitter.com/ZYHWVYsEwe
— Greg the Haliburton Stan (@gwiss) January 3, 2021
Remember when the Kings were 3-1? That was cool.