48 minutes. It doesn’t really seem that hard.
Over the last decade-plus, one of the key phrases to come out of the mouth of every Kings coach is that his team needs to figure out how to play a full 48 minutes of basketball.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a slow start to the first, a meltdown in the third quarter coming out of the intermission or the team learning how to close out games late, it always comes back to a lapse somewhere within the 48 minutes of regulation.
Against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, it was the second quarter that cost the Kings dearly. After leading 33-22 after the first quarter, the next 12 minutes of basketball was some of the worst the team has played all season.
“In the first quarter, we were getting what we wanted and defensively, we were doing everything we needed to do -- I think they scored 22 points in the first,” De’Aaron Fox said following the Kings' 121-106 loss to the Hawks. “In the third, the second they started, they got their offense going and we weren’t able to stop it.”
The Hawks outscored the Kings 39-18 in the second and it could have been much worse. Sacramento scored just a single bucket in the first six minutes and 33 seconds of the quarter.
“Offensively, we’re doing nice things, we’re putting up big numbers, but there’s no way to win consistently, unless you’re one of the most elite offensive teams of all-time, which we’re not,” coach Luke Walton said. “It’s got to hit home that we have to be able to get stops, so when we have off nights like tonight, we still give ourselves a chance.”
The problem the Kings have is that they are already a historically bad defensive team. When they missed shots, like they did in the second, it led to transition baskets for the Hawks, many of which were completely inexcusable.
“Outside of the first quarter, we just struggled to play with continuity, on both sides of the ball,” Harrison Barnes said. “Defensively, we kept having breakdowns.”
The Kings struggles on the defensive end aren’t on one player. Early in the season, the Kings allowed one guard after another to have big nights. When the team made defensive adjustments, there was a stretch where centers routinely hit the Kings for monster numbers.
They’ve had stretches where they play a solid couple of games, but the overall numbers are devastating, and the biggest reason why the team currently sits at 15-23 on the season.
“We’re a team here, if somebody scores 30, they score 30 on us, not on one person,” Richaun Holmes said. “We have to put the onus on ourselves and continue to help each other on the defensive end of the ball.”
The Kings didn’t help each other out against Atlanta. Trae Young and Rajon Rondo played the pick-and-roll game to perfection and weaponized center Clint Capela. The rotations never came and Capela finished with one dunk after another.
When the Kings made an adjustment, then it was the guards who put up numbers, and again, Sacramento was always a step slow to adjust.
Part of the issue is that the Kings just aren’t deep enough. Walton is focused on an eight-man rotation, partially to build chemistry on the court, but also because he doesn’t have the players to run out there.
Despite two starters being on the court at all times, the Kings seem to lose continuity when the lineup undergoes changes. It’s not an indictment on Cory Joseph, Nemanja Bjelica or Tyrese Haliburton, but on the team as a whole.
“We have to hold ourselves more accountable,” Holmes said. “The coaches can give us game plans and things all day, but we’re the ones on the floor. We have to talk to each other, talk amongst ourselves and hold each other more accountable.”
Somehow, the Kings need to find continuity, chemistry, energy and effort through an entire 48 minute game. They can’t afford giant swings, regardless of what quarter it comes in. The coaching staff might need to make changes or challenge the players in a different way, but at the end of the day, the players have to take ownership of what is happening on the court as well.
If they don’t, the second half of the season will look much like the first, with erratic swings in the win-loss column from one week to the next. It could also lead to major changes at the upcoming trade deadline.
The players are in a difficult situation and so is the coaching staff. There isn’t enough depth to bench a player for lackluster play on the defensive end and the answer isn’t to throw a group of inexperienced second round picks to the wolves.
Maybe the Kings figure it out. Maybe their current six-game road trip will build more chemistry. Then again, barring a major change in fortune, this is the group of players the team is forging ahead with this season. They need to play better, but there is also the reality of the situation this team is in.
Sacramento lacks depth. They don’t have the practice time to bring some of the younger players into the fold. Players like Fox, Haliburton and Marvin Bagley are gaining valuable experience, but this team needs more help. They also need to learn how to put it all out on the court for a full 48 minutes or they'll lose a lot more games in the second half of the season.