The Sacramento Kings’ strong finish couldn’t atone for a slow start against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. The Kings closed each half with staunch defense, but lacked any urgency in the first and third quarters, which proved fatal.
For much of the game, the Kings looked so lost defensively that they could have used a map to navigate the floor.
Possession after possession, defenders would get caught watching the ball or collapsing too hard and lose track of their assignment, setting up the Timberwolves with plenty of open looks at the basket. The Timberwolves capitalized—particularly in the third quarter, when they shot 10-of-19—and left Sleep Train Arena with a 108-97 victory.
After falling behind by as many as 15, the Kings put together a comeback effort in the fourth quarter, pairing defensive stops with well-executed offense for six minutes or so. They were kept in the game by their second unit before a few starters checked in to narrow the gap.
Ultimately, though, the comeback fell short, as a contested Ricky Rubio three quelled any hopes Sacramento had of stealing a win.
“I thought as our offense struggled, which is a sign of a young team, we allowed our offensive struggles and turnovers to affect our energy and effort the defensive end,” Michael Malone said. “The reality is you’re going to miss shots, you’re going to turn the ball over, but if you’re reliant on your offense to get you going, there’s going to be some off nights. That’s why defense has to be your anchor.”
Sacramento’s defensive failings didn’t just come in the half court; they were gouged in transition. Kevin Love put on a clinic, lobbing outlet passes across the court and over the heads of Sacramento defenders to spark the fast break. Once, Love launched a pass to a streaking teammate at the other end of the floor out of the inbound following a made free throw.
When it wasn’t Love getting his team into transition off a rebound, his teammates were running after getting turnovers. The Kings’ passing didn’t make the job too difficult for the Timberwolves, even throwing passes into the crowd on a few occasions.
Minnesota (29-29) defenders jumped passing lanes and made a point of pushing the ball in transition, while Sacramento (20-39) players were slow to react, often trailing as their opponents got wide open layups.
Saturday marked the second time in three games (all losses) that the Kings allowed 21 points or more off turnovers, a self-sabotaging habit.
“We gotta do a better job of taking care of the ball, especially ball security like … passing,” said DeMarcus Cousins, citing situations that the Kings get loose with the ball. “We let them get their hands in there and strip the ball away from us … We might have two or three guys on us, so we need to find the open man.”
As the game was slipping from the Kings’ hands late in the third, their second unit managed to tighten the team’s grip and drag it back into contention. With starters lacking energy and urgency, Reggie Evans, Quincy Acy and Ray McCallum came off the bench and awoke both the crowd and their teammates.
Malone was so pleased with the reserves’ performance that he left McCallum and Acy in when Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas, and Cousins returned. McCallum played the entire fourth quarter, a minute total that would have been a career high a week ago.
As the Timberwolves began to pull away, McCallum hit two threes to keep the Kings in the game. He finished with nine points and five assists and looked comfortable running the offense, particularly with the reserves.
Now that he is receiving more playing time, McCallum said he has to make in-game adjustments when switching between running the second unit and fitting in with the starters, but is comfortable in either role.
“With the second unit, I come in and I’m on the ball more. I’m kind of creating and making more plays,” McCallum said. “A lot of times with the first unit I’m kind of off the ball. I always have a defensive mindset, but when I’m out there with the first unit it’s strictly play defense, lock up, try to find guys and, at the same time, be aggressive.”
McCallum may get more chances to display his energy and aggression if the Kings continue to come out flatly.