The Sacramento Kings leave their home stand at Golden One Center up 2-0 on the Golden State Warriors, a widely unexpected result. Making the matter even more unexpected is that the Kings have largely been catapulted by a strong defensive performance.
This series has provided a remarkable inflection point of the elasticity of spacing, unbridled pace, and determined freneticism. During the earlier game on Monday, the Philadelphia 76ers turned the tide against Brooklyn’s ball screens by sitting back in a 2-3 zone, all 5 players planted inside the arc.
There are few more disparate images then the one provided by Philadelphia’s defense sitting back and what we routinely saw in Sacramento from both the Kings and Warriors, trying to combat each’s high-octane attack.
The depths to which both teams defended the perimeter last night was so fun to see
Both the Kings and Dubs set their defenses so far out for much of the game
Watching this in contrast to other series’ has been a treat pic.twitter.com/Y7WC95cyrS
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) April 18, 2023
Shotmaking defined the first game in spite of incredibly active defense from both sides. Game 2 levied opposing results, as many of the “in your face” shots were further off the target. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Kings held the Warriors to 104 points per 100 possessions in Game 2, staunchly below their 116.6 mark across the regular season. That kind of improvement on the defensive end begs the question: How’d they do it?
For starters, Davion Mitchell played just over 28 minutes in the game, well above his season average and by far the most he’s played in a game in which Fox was healthy. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Kings have employed lineups featuring Mitchell and Fox for 67 possessions in their first two playoff games, which accounts for 13.2 percent of their total possessions played together this season.
Mitchell and Fox took turns pressing Curry full court, the first and perhaps most important staple in Mike Brown’s gameplan against his old team. After every make, Mitchell or Fox picked up Curry, and all the more interestingly, the Kings played a near full court man. To take away some of the gaps that the Warriors take advantage of with their quick passing, razor sharp cutting, and crips ball movement, the Kings opted to work to take away most kick-ahead opportunities and outlet passes, rather than simply sprinting back to designated spots on the floor.
The results were stunning. The Warriors were able to slip through the cracks at times to get into their quick-hitter sets, but the Kings were by and large able to ramp up the pace while also trimming the margins that higher pace can provide an offense. With tight rotations and frankly, the highest level of intensity we’ve seen from them all year, as cliche as it sounds, their pressure gave Golden State consistent trouble.
The Warriors attempted to set ball screens higher and higher, a fascinating problem-solving effort in real time, but the Kings were game. The further the Warriors tried to stretch out, the further out the Kings were willing to apply pressure. It’s not often you see a team playing out at the level of the screen at halfcourt.
Every player deserves praise for what Sacramento put forth defensively, and Domantas Sabonis was pivotal. He played extremely well out on an island, occupying on late switches if a guard got screened out of the picture, hedged onto ball-handlers, prevented middle penetration, and showed with active hands and quick feet a the level of the screen to deter actions. Fox was key as a point of attack pressure point, but his off-ball defense was huge, including a massive block at the rim late in the fourth. He often played as the main back line tagger and was huge covering ground.
Mitchell, in particular, has been essential to unlocking their entire defensive plan, starting with the aforementioned 94 feet of hell. Every straight up ball-screen for Curry against Sacramento’s bigs received a show or hedge with Mitchell running overtop the screen in rear pursuit. The two-man game to contain Curry was executed as well as one could hope against a first ballot Hall of Famer. Pressure and aggression on defense unlocks the ability to cause havoc and force turnovers, but also opens the door to create easy looks if the positioning and timing are off. If that game played out 50 times, I’m not sure the Kings could recreate that level of performance without a drop off in intensity, timing, and rotations as a whole.
The tagger was always there to catch the slipping roller, arms were always up with hands out, the physicality straddled a fine line, and off-ball defenders remained alert. It takes all five players in tune to stifle an action, and in Game 2, Sacramento’s defense was “on a string” as coaches and players love to call it.
We’ve seen it time and time again against the Warriors how they take advantage of lapses as a defense’s focus begins to wane. No, this isn’t the same team that won a title, but the principles are still there alongside the top end talent. It is so easy to get burned by a minute mistake and get exploited for a run, and the Kings deserve an immense amount of praise for 48 minutes of being stupidly locked in in a way that would draw a grin from Jimmy Butler.
In the final 5 minutes of the game, the Warriors went to their bread and butter, running staggered screens for Curry with Klay Thompson as one of the screeners. In back to back possessions, the principles we witnessed all game bore out for the Kings.
On the first play, Mitchell picks up Steph off a make and mirrors him full court. Kevon Looney and Thompson set up in staggered screens with Curry dribbling middle to set up the flare screen for Thompson to take advantage of how the Kings are defending Steph.
By having Looney as the first screener and Klay as the second, it adds a small gray area the Warriors exploit. Sabonis is staying home because he isn’t the immediate defender on the latter screen, denying the roll. Monk bumps out and switches onto Curry as Mitchell chases in pursuit. The problem is, this abandons Klay, who flares out into the slot for the open pitchback; cash.
Play 2, Mitchell once again picks up Curry full court. This time however, the Warriors angle their staggers up to open up Klay ghosting under Looney to the slot. Looney angled higher and stepping back could put Curry on an island against Malik Monk, or open up Klay Thompson again. As soon as Looney steps back, Mitchell calls out for Monk to switch, recovering back to and taking away any open pass to Klay. Monk holds his own and immediately gets a hand on Curry, keeping a wide base and not giving an angle. Curry calls for the re-screen from Looney and Sabonis shows as Monk gets caught by the screen.
Curry dragging the play as far as he can to the slot makes the recovery harder and a further distance to cover, so Fox flies up to take away the Looney roll and Sabonis extends his recovery back to Gary Payton II. The action is stifled and Andrew Wiggins sets an impromptu screen to open up Curry curling to the corner as the clock winds and he misses a contested pull-up.
It seems small, but the read and react from the Kings on the fly after getting burned the play before by a similar look was remarkably impressive. It was made more impressive by the multiple efforts and reactions to stifle the Warriors multiple times in the same possession to string them out into deep waters late in the clock.
Multiple impressive, intense, intuitive, and planned out efforts won the game for the Sacramento Kings as they put together arguably their best defensive performance of the season considering the moment. For a team that faced understandable questions about how their defense would hold up in the postseason, they’ve shown through two games that intense effort and full commitment to a gameplan can make up for what they lack in individual defensive prowess. I can’t wait to see how Golden State tries to counter and what the Kings have in store as the series wanes on. As evidenced by the double drag set, they’ll have some tricks up their sleeves for the Sacramento pressure, testing the young Kings’ commitment to their principles.