To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Sacramento Kings death have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s hard to blame anyone who was doubting Sacramento after Wednesday’s performance against the Boston Celtics, a game that saw the home team get out-scored 70-53 in the second half on their way to a blowout loss to one of the league’s championship contenders. But they bounced back in a big way Friday against the Phoenix Suns, attacking the paint early and often on their way to a 120-105 win.
The Suns were without starting center Jusef Nurkic, and the Kings took advantage of the decreased paint presence early. Domantas Sabonis scored the first seven points for Sacramento, including back-to-back dunks, as the Kings focused on two of Mike Brown’s favorite things – paint touches and spraying the ball. Sabonis would finish with 28/12/11, his fourth triple-double of the season, as he continues his strong play in the month of December.
As good as Domas was – and he was excellent – Friday belonged to De’Aaron Fox, who became the Sacramento-era Kings’ all-time assists leader, dropping dime 2,581 in the third quarter. It was a game that had a little bit of everything, especially in the first half.
A clock error during a Malik Monk jump ball in the first quarter led to the officials taking 53 seconds off the clock, something rarely seen in an NBA game. It helped explained why the first quarter seemed to take forever; well, that and the 38 free throws the two teams shot between them in the opening stanza. It was a back and forth affair early, with the teams trading baskets, but the tone changed significantly with around seven minutes left before the halftime break.
A massive Malik Monk poster got the Golden 1 Center crowd fired up, though the Suns responded with a dunk of their own. That led to Kevin Durant getting a technical foul for coming on to the court to celebrate, and Devin Booker picked up a T of his own defending his teammate. Coach Frank Vogel would get a technical foul himself just a few minutes later, as Phoenix began to unravel. Sacramento took a 65-54 lead into the break and opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run to pull away.
“We just stayed aggressive,” Murray said of the team’s hot start in the third. “We just wanted to keep our foot on the gas in the third quarter and keep the pace up.”
Sacramento would lead by as many as 29 in the third and closed the frame with a 103-84 advantage.
The fourth quarter basically saw the two teams play out the string as Sacramento was able to stifle the few runs Phoenix made behind Durant and Booker, turning up the defensive intensity and relying on their stars to make shots when they needed an answer. And the stars delivered time and time again.
On a night where the bench didn’t give Mike Brown much, the starting unit did; in addition to Sabonis’ game-high 28, Fox had 23, Keegan Murray had 21, Harrison Barnes 19, and Kevin Huerter 13. The Kings are 18-1 when Murray scores 20+, and the second-year player is truly developing into a star right before our eyes. He also played solid defense on Devin Booker, making things difficult for the Suns’ star. It was a great game for Barnes as well, as he was effective defensively on Kevin Durant and connected on 4 of his 8 three point attempts. In fact, Sacramento’s defensive effort as a whole was markedly improved, and their physicality against Booker and Durant was a welcome change from Wednesday’s lack of effort against the Celtics.
Brown will likely be disappointed by how much he had to rely on his starting unit on the first night of a back to back; the first five scored 104 of the team’s 120 points. Only Huerter played less than 32 minutes on the night, and the starters were in until about 2:30 remained in the game despite the big lead.
Phoenix got 28 from Durant and 24 from Booker, but the Kings kept Eric Gordon in check (0 points after 19 the first time these two teams met this season) and kept the Suns as a whole cool from outside; after the Celtics shot 52% from 3 last game, Phoenix was just 5-25 from behind the arc and shot 44% overall. “A big part of that is just for us to fly around and try to limit them,” Murray said.
The Kings will now welcome in one of the best teams in the West in Minnesota, though the Timberwolves will be without Karl Anthony Towns Saturday night. Sacramento is winless this season on the second night of a back to back, but if they carry over their effort from tonight, that definitely can change.