Close isn’t good enough. Not when you are 7-14 on the season.
The Sacramento Kings fell for the fourth time in five games Saturday night, giving way to the Houston Rockets by a final of 120-113. While their offense struggled to keep up in the final few minutes, it was once again their defense that failed to provide the necessary stops.
“When you play fast, you give up points,” head coach George Karl told reporters following the game.
The Rockets are a quality offensive team. They tout the NBA’s second-leading scorer in James Harden and despite his reluctance to play on a nightly basis, Dwight Howard is still a bear to deal with in the post.
Following the loss, Karl pointed to the Kings focus on Harden as one of the reasons for the high-scoring contest.
“I don’t think tonight’s game would fall as a bad defensive game,” Karl said. “You had a guy that you had to plug and you’re going to give up some three’s with Harden on the court.”
Harden finished the night with 31 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-for-6 from behind the arc. Where he really hammered the Kings was at the line, where he went 14-for-16.
“They got a lot of free throws and they made a lot and they made their threes,” Karl said. “We had some defensive breakdowns. Harden is a hell of a player. It was just a frustrating game. The free throws, trying to fight through tough whistles. I thought we did a great job and I was proud of how they fought and the way we played.”
The Kings didn’t give up 43 to Harden like they did earlier in the season in Sacramento. And they certainly didn’t get burned by the All-Star for 51 like they did in a game last season. But like Karl said, while the Kings focused on Harden, they left shooters open on the perimeter and late in the game, it hurt them.
“We got into a good rhythm (second and third quarters), but for the most part, the fourth quarter and the last five minutes, we weren’t solid defensively,” Rajon Rondo said. “Starting with myself, I had a bad back stab in the court and gave up a three. We have to continue to push and play better, especially in the fourth quarter.”
Rondo wasn’t the only one to give up a three. Sacramento came into the contest 30th in the league in 3-point attempts against. In a continuing trend, that number will jump up yet again after the Rockets game.
With Harden getting the star treatment, Houston hit 16-of-34 from long range for a robust 47.1 percent. For a coach that bases his own offense on shots at the rim and corner three balls, Karl can’t seem to find a way to limit an opposing team from blowing his team up from the perimeter.
“We had a few breakdowns, defensively,” forward Omri Casspi said. “I felt like we were scoring at will. We just have to lockdown as a team, defensively. Sometimes if you wait all the way to the end of the game, that’s what happens. Things don’t just go your way. We just have to be better doing things throughout the game and be more consistent, defensively.”
The Kings left Houston following the loss and jump back into the fray on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC is a top 10 shooting team from 3-point range, shooting 35.8 percent on the year. They also have two of the game’s best in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Sacramento is digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole with every loss. If they let these two get going and leave open shooters all over the floor like they did against Harden, Howard and the rest of the Rockets, the Kings will have no chance to avoid a 7-15 start to the season.
While the defense is still struggling to find an identity, the offense is looking more and more like a Karl-led team.
The Kings are second in the league in pace and their 104.8 points per game is good enough for fourth best in the NBA.
Sacramento also came into Houston fourth in the league in assists per game at 23.7 and they hit the Rockets with a season-best 35 dimes.
“I think we’re learning a little bit better for making an extra pass instead of forcing the first option,” Karl said. “When a defense makes good plays, you’ve got to respect it by passing the ball and when you do, time will give you a good shot.”
Rajon Rondo continues to lead the NBA in assists at 11.0 a game and for the third time this season, he registered 18 or more. 19 assists against a quality defender in like Patrick Beverley is impressive.
“I thought we had a great rhythm there,” Karl added. “Even at the end, where we were behind I thought we had great looks. We had two layups at the four minute mark, two wide open threes by Omri (Casspi), who’s our best shooter by far. Rudy (Gay) actually got two pretty good looks for late game situations. None of our shots went in.”
If the Kings could have hit a few shots down the stretch, Rondo would have crested 20 for a second time in the last two weeks.
Karl has proven to be an offensive genius in the past, so the Kings high-powered offense is no surprise. If he can figure out a defensive scheme, Sacramento might have a fighting chance.
DeMarcus Cousins struggled all night long. In fact, he’s been struggling for the better part of a week and it may have something to do with his recovery from injury.
Since returning from a lower back strain, Cousins has shot just 18-for-57 (31.6 percent) from the field and 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) from behind the arc.
“I think his jumper is a little rusty from being out for a little bit,” Karl said following the loss.
A little rusty is an understatement. Cousins is down more than seven points per game off his season average over the last three games and his rebounding numbers have taken a dramatic hit as well.
On the defensive end, Cousins looks a step slow as well. He fouled out against the Rockets in just 27 minutes of action and veteran center Dwight Howard dropped in a 22-point, 18-rebound performance against him.
“He’s playing against a pretty damn good center,” Karl added. “Howard’s a pretty respectful dude.”
It won’t get any easier on Cousins Sunday in OKC. The Thunder come at you with all types of big bodies, including the brawny Steven Adams and the offensive-minded Enes Kanter. Cousins will once again have his hands full.