Close your eyes because you need only listen to the crowd at a Sacramento Kings game to diagnose the team’s bi-polar condition.
It’s not uncommon in Sleep Train arena to hear boo birds one quarter and eruptions the next.
Tuesday night, the contest ended with cheers celebrating the Kings’ 107-104 defeat of the Phoenix Suns.
With the game spiraling out of control Sacramento – which found itself behind by as much as 14 in the third quarter – gathered itself with enough time remaining to complete a comeback effort, a first this season.
“We didn’t defend most of the night, but one of our goals is to hold our opponent to 20 points or less in the fourth quarter,” said a relieved Michael Malone of the Kings, who limited the Suns to 16 points in the final quarter. “We made plays – just enough plays to get a win – and it started with our fourth quarter defense.”
Crisp rotations, help-side defense and fastbreaks off of forced turnovers (Sacramento scored 9 of its total 13 points off turnovers in the final quarter) gradually tipped the scales in the Kings’ favor before they eventually took the lead in the game’s waning moments.
It didn’t matter if it was top of the rotation players like DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas or end of the bench ones such as Jimmer Fredette and Hamady N’Diaye; the Kings got essential plays and production from everyone Malone put on the floor.
“It was a team effort. Our team defense at the end won that game,” Cousins said. “If we can start games off that way, we can win a lot more games.”
Cousins may well be right, but the team struggled throughout the first half or so of the game.
The final stretch of defense was so miraculous because it was equally anomalous; for much of the night, Sacramento (3-7) made Phoenix (5-5) look like one of the league’s elite teams.
Leading up to the game, multiple members of the Kings noted the Suns’ preference to penetrate the lane to create offense for others. In the first three quarters, though, Sacramento seemed oblivious to its own scouting assessment.
Even without Eric Bledsoe, who missed the game with an injury, the Suns were able to pick apart the Kings’ defense. Pick and rolls opened up the floor for Phoenix, whose ball handlers routinely found cutters and open shooters off of bad Sacramento rotations. Goran Dragic, in particular, looked like his old mentor, Steve Nash, the way he zipped around the floor through the heart of the defense before finding teammates.
With Greivis Vasquez at the helm of the offense, the Kings went to the pick and roll often as well, though theirs yielded different results. Sacramento wasn’t able to find the space using the pick and roll that Phoenix did. Instead, players dribbled into traffic, setting up contested shots.
Things clicked in the final quarter, though, and the Kings’ ball movement changed the outcome of the game. Players made the extra pass and Cousins dished out of double teams, finding open shooters who were able to knock down shots.
One of those shooters was Ben McLemore who, in the third start of his career, had his best outing yet. Despite slumping since moving into the starting lineup, McLemore’s confidence remained. With the help of screens, he was able to free up and knock down a number of key jumpers.
“I’m comfortable. I have a lot of confidence just going out there and playing my game,” McLemore said. “I’m going to keep shooting. … My teammates had confidence in me to keep shooting the ball.”
Sacramento nearly went down with a whimper against Phoenix Tuesday night. The Kings straightened out their audibly bi-polar performance with late eye-opening play.
They’re playing the Suns again tonight and, without a home crowd, will have to provide visual cues to show sustained improvement.