You wouldn’t know it from looking at their position in the standings and their 27-47, but the Sacramento Kings are quietly having a late-season renaissance. As this Truehoop article points out, they have had the second best offense in the league since the trade-deadline, as the arrival of Patrick Patterson and his floor-spreading ways has coincided nicely with hot shooting streaks from Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton to turbo-charge their game with the ball in hand. In years gone by the Kings have tried to give meaning to otherwise meaningless late season games by doing their best to trip up anyone fighting for playoff position who happened to cross their path, and it seems they’ll be looking to do the same this year having recently recorded good wins against the Bulls, Clippers and Warriors.
Sacramento hold the distinction of being one of the few teams in the league that Houston has not beaten so far this year, and they stick out like a sore thumb in the company of the other members of that group – Miami, Indiana and Denver. The Rockets have two games left against them to correct that and avenge their loss earlier in the season. The goal of playoff qualification is inching ever closer, and with one eye the team must be looking to overhauling the Golden State Warriors for the number 6 spot in the West. Winning despite missing Harden in their past two games has been very helpful in that regard, but they are still a game back and need wins on nights like tonight to keep their challenge alive.
Missing Parsons and Harden didn’t slow the Rockets down too much against Sacramento, but tonight they’ll be facing a much more well-stocked front court and won’t be able to rely on the brute force of Greg Smith or the jumpers of Omer Asik (no, really) consistently. The good news is that the team’s two leading scorers are hoping to play, but both are game-time decisions as the bearded one recovers from an ankle injury and Parsons recovers from some Mexican-food-induced food poisoning.
If both of them do play, it will be interesting to see if McHale persists with using Greg Smith in the starting lineup or re-inserts Motiejunas at the Power Forward position. Smith has played very well since taking on the starting gig and Motiejunas’ play of late has been less than inspiring, but on the other hand if Harden returns the extra space provided by D-Mo’s floor spacing might be more useful. It’s certainly the case that the team has looked more solid defensively when playing both Smith and Asik at the same time, but it does have the downside that the when the backups check in McHale has to pair Robinson and Motiejunas together, which doesn’t quite have the same solidity to it at this stage.
There’s also a battle going on for the remaining minutes on the wing between James Anderson and Francisco Garcia. Both have seen playing time in recent times due to a combination of injuries and Delfino’s current shooting funk. Anderson seemed to have the edge coming into this stretch, as he was the first to come into the lineup after Harden’s injury against the Grizzlies, but Garcia has done a lot to stake his claim. He’s hitting a high percentage from the field and has adapted to the offense nicely, while Anderson often tries to force things despite not possessing the dynamism of the man whose shoes he is trying to fill. The mini-contest between them is far from over – in a fully healthy squad it is likely that there will only be minutes for one of the two – but for now it’s worth considering what a luxury it is that two such solid players are on hand to fill in when two-thirds of the regular wing rotation goes down. The Rockets have been very fortunate with injuries this season, but Morey’s roster building has ensured that the cover is there when needed.
One more point on the Rockets – Terrence Jones is back with the Rockets after a thumb injury. He has looked excellent in his two games with the Vipers, but it remains to be seen whether he can push his way in front of either Robinson or Motiejunas to get some minutes in the rotation. On paper his three point range would make him a better fit in the offense than Robinson, but having not been with the team for long it’s unclear if he has been properly integrated back into the fold enough that McHale will trust him with some playing time. When there was a similar competition for minutes between Greg Smith and Cole Aldrich earlier in the season, McHale would only play one on any given night. Perhaps he will adopt a similar strategy here (although if D-Mo continues to rack up fouls at the rate he’s been going both might be needed).
The Kings are built around DeMarcus Cousins, one of the better examples of the ‘talented but troubled’ archetype in today’s NBA. Coach Keith Smart, who has at times been criticised for inconsistent lineup choices, seems to have settled on a nine-man group for the past few games. He’ll put diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas and the once-hyped Tyreke Evans together in the backcourt for the opening tip, filling in the starting lineup with John Salmons (veteran wing) and Jason Thompson (little-known but solid forward). Look on the bench and you’ll see many familiar faces. There’s Patrick Patterson, bringing his calm professionalism and leadership to a locker room that needed it (and adding some welcome three point shooting from the 4). It will be interesting to see his first game against his old team – there will doubtless be some desire to do well against his former teammates. Old friend Chuck Hayes will bring his defense and high-post passing, and familiar face Toney Douglas has worked his way into the lineup as a backup point guard. But the remaining player off the bench for the Kings is probably the most dangerous – Marcus Thornton may be inconsistent but when he’s hot he can really punish you with his ability to score from anywhere on the court.
This part of the game is very much in flux depending on the status of Harden. If he’s around the Rockets will persist with the penetration-fuelled strategy that has served them so well all year. Without him, the team should switch to more of a passing game, with a lot of focus on the inside presences of Asik and Smith. The pair have exhibited some nicely effective inside games recently, and the Rockets will probably look to establish them early against Thompson and Cousins. Neither will be as easy to overwhelm as Tobias Harris was for Greg Smith on Monday, but at the same time they are at best average post defenders and should provide an interesting test for the big men’s budding post games. They will have to be careful when the subs check in though, because Patterson’s familiarity with their games will make things difficult and long-time Rockets followers will know just how difficult Chuck Hayes can make life in the post.
On the wings, both Anderson and Delfino are in the midst of poor shooting stretches they’ll be wanting to break out of. Delfino’s issues may be as a result of the lingering elbow injury that he has previously said will be with him until the end of the season. Anderson, on the other hand, has a tendency to drive into the teeth of the defense more than he perhaps should, and the resulting pull-ups are not conducive to shooting a high percentage. He has struggled from behind the arc too (1/8 in his last three games), which at some point will need to turn around if he wants to earn some more consistent minutes going forwards.
The Sacramento Kings have for several seasons been characterized as a team of unconscionable gunners with no interesting in passing the ball. While this is slowly improving, there is still a lot of injudicious shot selection going on. Cousins likes to shoot from the midrange, from where he is inconsistent (although recently he has been gravitating towards the hoop more), and both Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton have a tendency to look for their own shots slightly too much. However, Isaiah Thomas has been improving the balance in his game between the shot and the pass to good effect, and Patterson has helped create more room for the teams multitudinous drivers.
While Cousins has all of the tools to be a physically dominant centre, he has yet to employ them in a consistent fashion. Most of his offensive game can be summed up by a quick glance at his shot chart, which does not make for pretty viewing:
He doesn’t seem to be able to finish especially well around the basket despite his bulk, and Asik should be able to keep him quiet down low. He is, however, a surprisingly good passer if given the freedom to do so. You will often see him dumping off to back-cutting wings in plays that look like they could well be holdovers from back when Rick Adelman coached here all those years ago.
One of the keys to stopping the Kings’ offense is to find a way to slow down Isaiah Thomas. In wins this year he has shot 52%, but in losses he only connects on 42% of his shots. He’s had a couple of big games recently (including a 31 point, 7 assist night against the Warriors last week), and his speed makes him tough for bigger guards to chase. This is a match-up where I think Lin will struggle – in general I think he does a much better job against bigger guards that he can stay in front of than speedy ones who can sometimes exploit his so-so lateral quickness. Beverley, on the other hand, with his smaller build and aggressive quickness, would seem to be an ideal player to give this defensive assignment to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Beverley gets some minutes down the stretch if the game is close.
Tyreke Evans has improved his three point shot slightly this year, but it’s still an anemic 33%. He will look to drive where possible and should be played as such – were the standard starters around I would expect Parsons to take Evans and Harden to be cross-matched on the less-dynamic Salmons. Thornton plays very much like a worse version of Kobe when he takes to the court – it doesn’t matter where he is, he will shoot from anywhere out of any coverage, be it off the dribble or otherwise. He is capable of making more of those shots than you’d expect, it’s just that they’re still really low percentage.
When Patterson he will provide a slightly different look by stretching the defense out to the three point line. This has seemed to have a positive effect on Cousins’ play by moving him closer to the basket when they’re playing together, and its overall efficacy has been helped by Patterson being red hot from beyond the arc since the move (46.7%!). Motiejunas should be able to stay in front of him, but will have to be wary of Patterson occasionally putting the ball on the floor from the perimeter, as well as his favourite baseline 15-footer.
This is a game that on paper should be an easy win for the Rockets. However, the Kings are a team playing with nothing to lose, and if Harden and Parsons are unable to play at full strength it won’t necessarily be a walk in the park. The key will be to contain the offense of Cousins and Thomas – if they are able to do that, the rest should take care of itself.