In his preview of last night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, A Royal Pain’s own Gabe Callahan issued a warning, of sorts, before what figured to be a winnable game against an opponent some 15 games under .500:
"The Pelicans are coming off a loss last night against the L.A. Lakers and All-Star Anthony Davis is questionable to play. Sacramento has had three days rest. The Kings are looking hungry and determined the last few games and their playoff hopes seem to be driving them. Because of injuries, New Orleans is not having the season everyone thought they would have. The Kings should win this one."
"But these are the Sacramento Kings, and this season whenever it looked good on paper for the Kings to get a win, they have found ways to foul it up."
Long story short: Fast forward 48 minutes, and the Pelicans (12-26) are now 14 games under .500. Likewise, the Sacramento Kings (15-23) are eight games under .500, two games back of the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz. Such is the case when, as a wannabe playoff team on the outside looking in, you lose to the visiting Pelicans, 109 to 97.
Though it was worse than that.
At its best, New Orleans held a 28-point lead, aided in no small part by the Kings’ perimeter defense, which was less than stellar. A backcourt rotation made up mostly of Rajon Rondo, Darren Collison, Seth Curry, and Marco Belinelli allowed a team shooting 34.9 percent from three on the season to shoot 48.5 percent from three on the night, including performances by Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, who made 6-12 and 4-6 three-point attempts, respectively. Even Norris Cole, who sports a 31 percent career three-point percentage and a 21 percent mark for this season, made two of his four attempts from beyond the arc.
Sacramento, meanwhile, made just six of its 23 three-point attempts, good for 26.1 percent. And the statistical discrepancies don’t end there: The Kings tallied 18 turnovers to the Pelicans’ seven, just four steals to New Orleans’ 10, and 21 assists to its opponent’s 27.
Thankfully for the Kings, the game’s eventual scoring difference wasn’t as great as it once was, due to a brief DeMarcus Cousins fourth quarter takeover that saw Sacramento score 14 unanswered points. Later, the New Orleans lead was cut down to as little as 12 before Eric Gordon hit a three to swing enough momentum out of the Kings’ favor. For good.
Simply put, the Kings did not deserve to win. Poor shooting night? Sure, it happens. A little sloppy with the basketball? Alright, to be expected. But lazy defense? Late to closeouts? Missing rotations? On three days of rest? Inexcusable.
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Because until Sacramento can shore up its tendency to forgo defending the other team’s guards, games like Wednesday’s will continue to happen, and a ceiling somewhere short of the West’s eighth seed will be tough to raise. Defensive responsibility ultimately rests in the efforts of those actually doing the defending, though the head coach does have his own questions to answer.
George Karl isn’t oblivious to this crisis, but he does seem unwilling — or, at the very least, extremely hesitant — to make any personnel changes in the hopes of fixing this issue.
One such change might include an increase in playing time for Willie Cauley-Stein, who last night recorded three blocks and five rebounds in about 16 minutes of playing time. A spike in the big man’s on-court minutes may not dramatically improve his team’s ability to contain dribble penetration, but his length and athletic versatility couldn’t hurt.
And what about Ben McLemore? Last night, with 5:18 left in the first quarter, the third-year shooting guard was subbed out for Kosta Koufos, and never re-entered the game. Instead, Marco Belinelli played 19 minutes in Ben’s place, making just one of his six shots (neither of his two threes). In other words, McLemore matched Marco’s offensive production — each scored two points — in roughly 12 fewer minutes.
But, more importantly, think of the defense. Granted, Ben isn’t exactly the NBA’s best defender, and qualifying his defense as “better than Marco Belinelli’s” sets the bar absurdly low, but it’s where the Kings are right now. If Belinelli wasn’t having one of the worst shooting seasons of his career, perhaps Karl could justify his current backcourt rotation. Unfortunately, Belinelli is, and Karl cannot.
So until the Kings can better its defunct defense, any and all talk of playoff basketball is just that. And you know what they say about talk.
For the Kings, DeMarcus Cousins scored 32 points on 30 shots, going 13-30 from the field and 3-8 from beyond the arc, to go along with 12 rebounds. Rajon Rondo tallied 17 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds against three turnovers.
For the Pelicans, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis each scored 24 points, including six assists for Gordon and 10 rebounds for Davis. Off the bench, Ryan Anderson added 18 points on 12 shots, going 4-6 from three.