NBA team used to try to post up 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas during his time with the Sacramento Kings. More often than not, they came up empty.
Thomas is stronger than he looks and a lot of guards aren’t comfortable playing in the post, regardless of who they are guarding.
Teams have tried to reverse this trend in the last few seasons in the league. Instead of isolating smaller players in the post, they instead try to drag bigs out to the perimeter and then take advantage of their often inferior lateral quickness.
That was the gameplan Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center. With 13.4 seconds on the clock, the Thunder made sure the ball was in Chris Paul’s hand and then worked to get the switch they were looking for.
OKC then spaced the floor, isolating Paul on center Richaun Holmes and having him go one-on-one with the 6-foot-10 big.
“You’ve just got to guard,” Holmes told NBC Sports California. “Chris Paul is a Hall of Famer, a very smart player and you’ve just got to make him as uncomfortable as possible.”
Paul started on the left elbow and crossed over Holmes while sliding to the right elbow. The 6-foot-1 guard tried to step back and fall away to create space, but Holmes stayed with him stride for stride.
“You don’t want to let your teammates down, so I was just trying to make him take as tough a shot as possible and that’s what I was able to do,” Holmes added.
Paul’s 15-foot jumper barely cleared the outstretched right arm of Holmes and hit the front rim. Harrison Barnes flew in for the rebound and the Kings came away with the 94-93 win.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a center, but head coach Luke Walton has trust in Holmes. The crowd was on their feet begging for one more stop. While Paul is dancing around waiting for an opening, you can see the Kings locked up in man-to-man coverage, leaving Holmes alone on an island.
“I could feel the energy come up,” Holmes said of the crowd. “We were able to rally around that. It was a good feeling. It was a good feeling to come out there and even a better feeling to come away with the win.”
Trevor Ariza is in the post fighting with Steven Adams, Bogdan Bogdanovic is boxing out Danilo Gallinari and both Barnes and Cory Joseph stayed tight on their men on the perimeter.
“Yeah, he’s impressive,” Walton said of Holmes. “He’s been impressive all year. I look back at that first win we were able to get against Utah here and he switched out on [Donovan] Mitchell in that game and made a great defensive contest. He’s been one of the main points with our defense turning around where it has from the start of the season to now.”
Sacramento was atrocious on the defensive end during their 0-5 start to the season, but they’ve turned things around. The Kings currently allow the 13th-most points per game at 108.3 and they are 19th in defensive rating. There is plenty more room for improvement, but they are winning games with their defense for the first time in years.
The Kings now have won three in a row against quality opponents by a combined six points. All three games came down to the final seconds.
“It’s the NBA, we’re competing, they’re competing,” Holmes said. “The last few games we’ve been going down to the wire. That’s what you live for. You live for the opportunity to be out there on the floor and make the play. I enjoy every minute of it.”
[RELATED: Bagley's 'best basketball yet to come' after his Kings return]
The schedule gets lighter over the next few games, but the Kings are not in a position to let up. They’ve almost recovered completely from their abysmal start to the season and are starting to get healthy at the right time.
Getting Marvin Bagley back may change Holmes’ role slightly with the team, but he earns every minute with his play on both ends of the court. His defense against Paul was just a small sample of what the Kings have seen throughout the first quarter of the season from their starting center.