The Sacramento Kings went from euphoric to downtrodden in a matter of minutes on Monday night. Leading by as many as 22 in the third quarter, the Kings could almost do no wrong. And then the wheels fell off the bus.
You could feel the change in momentum to close out the third. After scoring 31 points in the first 9:36 out of the break, the Kings went scoreless the final 2:24. Charlotte took advantage of the poor play, cutting Sacramento’s lead to 17 going to the fourth with a late 5-0 run.
It was almost as if a light switch in confidence was flipped. The Hornets seized control of the game and Sacramento looked lost as they watched Kemba Walker run circles around them.
“I think we’re trying to establish an identity [on defense], it’s just not a good feeling right now to revert back to our old ways at the most important time of the game,” guard Darren Collison told reporters in post game. “Right now we’ve got to figure out a way to get back to the way we were playing against Orlando.”
Walker abused the Kings for 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the fourth quarter. He took advantage of Sacramento’s incessant defensive switches to create mismatches. If he drew a big, he instantly took them off the dribble. If the Kings backed away, Walker dropped one of his three long balls of the quarter.
“I thought we were going to win the game with the switching,” Karl said following the game. “We probably should have changed it up with more blitzing.”
Clearly the switching wasn’t working in the fourth. Be it personnel or fatigue, the Kings allowed Walker to run right to the basket on countless occasions. The trend continued in the overtime session, only it was Jeremy Lin doing the damage instead.
“In overtime, we went to putting two men on him [Kemba Walker],” Karl said. “We let him get to his right hand. Lin was just busting us so quick the help couldn’t come. I’ll take responsibility for the fatigue. I thought we fatigued. I should have substituted probably earlier and more often.”
Fatigue may have played a role in the lackluster defensive performance down the stretch. Rondo played the entire second half and the overtime session as well. Despite having a completely healthy backcourt, the four-time All-Star logged 46 minutes of action.
It’s hard to fault Karl’s reliance on Rondo. The 29-year-old guard finished the night with 14 points, 20 assists and eight rebounds. But in hindsight, the veteran coach should have looked to steal a minute or two of rest here and there for his starting point guard.
Gay played 42 minutes as well, finishing with 28 points and 10 rebounds. It was Gay on a switch that allowed Walker to race to the hoop in the waning seconds of the fourth. Walker’s layup with .7 seconds almost ended the game in regulation.
The veteran forward redeemed himself moments later with a buzzer beating alley-oop from Rondo off the inbounds that forced the game into overtime. Gay wasn’t making excuses after the loss.
“It’s a game we thought we should have had easily and we gave it away, plain and simple,” Gay said.
It’s hard to argue with Gay’s statement. The Kings had a second straight road win and they gave it away.
Karl tweaked his starting lineup coming out of the intermission and his Kings team came out on fire. Sacramento began the third quarter on a 9-0 run and pushed the lead to 22 with 2:24 remaining in the period.
The insertion of Omri Casspi over Willie Cauley-Stein appeared to open the floor for the Kings. Rondo looked for Rudy Gay early and often and the 10-year NBA vet responded with a 16 point quarter on 7-of-8 shooting from the field.
Sacramento wants to push the tempo and this was a 12 minute snapshot of what Karl wants to see from his team. Their defense was lively. They forced Charlotte into seven turnovers and held the home team to just 14 point in the quarter on 30 percent shooting.
Rondo orchestrated the offense during the hot streak, picking up seven assists in the quarter on his way to a 20-assist night. He was engaged on defense as well, snaring three of his four total steals in the quarter.
The Kings played stellar ball for nine minutes and 36 seconds and then let off the gas.
How do you let a 22-point second half lead slip away? That is the question the Sacramento Kings will be asking themselves for the next few days, and possibly longer.
“I don’t know if fatigue, momentum, not being able to cover their two little guards,” a perplexed Karl said following the game. “It’s a tough loss.”
Sacramento’s inability to stay in front of a man on the defensive end was embarrassing. Their constant switching made no sense. Their inability to rotate on defense to stop dribble drive penetration gave Charlotte all they needed to steal away this game.
“It’s inexcusable,” Darren Collison said following the loss. “We know we can score the ball, but defensively it’s just something that we’re a little bit inconsistent right now. It’s something that we’ve got to continue to focus on. It’s disheartening because there was a chance to close that team out and we were playing really well in the third quarter and we didn’t.”
Be it scheme, effort, fatigue or a lack of understanding of basic basketball concepts, the Kings had a team beat on their home floor and couldn’t put them away. It’s a startling trend that continues to haunt this 5-10 team.
DeMarcus Cousins scored 12 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, but missed the final minute and the overtime session with a back issue.
“He sprained his back somewhere in the third quarter, I think,” Karl said. “He went back and I think got it examined. Initially, I thought he wasn’t even going to go back in and play. Then he came back out and said he wanted to try it.”
After leaving the game in the mid-third quarter, Cousins returned to start the fourth. You could see the discomfort on his face, but in a winnable game, the All-Star center tried to persevere.
“We probably should have not played him because he was never a hundred percent after that,” Karl said.
Sacramento is 0-5 on the season without Cousins and 11-38 during his career when he has to sit. The Kings face Milwaukee on Wednesday and then the Timberwolves and Warriors on Friday and Saturday night. If Cousins can’t go, this Kings season has a good chance to go from bad to worse in a hurry.