Michael Malone isn't happy. (Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports)
The Sacramento Kings played the New Orleans Pelicans even-up through three quarters on Monday night, riding strong offensive performances from center DeMarcus Cousins (19 points, 10 rebounds), point guard Isaiah Thomas (17 points, five assists, four rebounds) and reserve guard Marcus Thornton (17 points on 10 shots off the bench) to head into the fourth knotted up with former teammate Tyreke Evans and the Pelicans' high-powered offense (ninth-best in the NBA in points scored per possession entering Monday). The wheels completely came off the wagon over the following 12 minutes, though — really, as Sactown Royalty's Tom Ziller breaks down, over the final six minutes — to turn a competitive contest into a disappointing 113-100 home loss, dropping Sacramento to 8-19 on the season and just 5-11 at Sleep Train Arena.
After watching former King Evans (25 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, three steals in his best performance since joining the Pelicans this summer) and Anthony Davis (21 points, 11 rebounds) lead a balanced New Orleans attack in subduing Sacramento, Kings head coach Mike Malone pulled no punches in assessing his team's performance during his postgame press conference, as captured by News10 Sacramento:
After Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday carved up the Kings' porous perimeter defense — 28 shots in the paint, including 22 within the restricted area, with Evans getting to the free-throw line 12 times — a reporter asked Malone what changes he could make to Sacramento's D to prevent that sort of dribble penetration.
"I can't answer that," Malone answered. "It's the same problem every night. I guess we've got to get some better players who can contain the basketball, because right now, we can't."
Malone was just getting started.
"I mean, 22 turnovers, 29 points [off those mistakes] — you give up a 39-point fourth quarter, it's ... we're a bad basketball team," Malone said. "That's the bottom line. We're a bad basketball team right now."
The turnover issue was a major point of emphasis for the first-year head coach after the game.
"We had some decent stretches tonight, but you know, every time we tried to build a little bit of a lead, we turned the ball over," he said. "We come out of a timeout in the fourth quarter and we can't make an entry pass to the wing. We turn the ball [over] out of a timeout. Our starting point guard to our starting small forward."
"Rudy Gay has seven turnovers. [ED. NOTE: The official box score counted six.] DeMarcus has four. Isaiah has four. Marcus has four," Malone said, shaking his head. "We're not that good where we can give teams 22 extra possessions, I'll tell you that much. I don't know if we can beat them if we give them zero extra possessions, but if we give them 22 for 29 points? That's what happens. That's what happens."
Malone reserved his most potent venom for a fourth quarter in which Sacramento allowed New Orleans to shoot 54.5 percent from the floor while missing 13 of their 18 shots, turning what had been a tie game after three quarters into a dispiriting loss.
"To allow them to score 39 points ... I can't get over that," Malone said. "That's like the Atlanta game [when the Kings gave up 39 fourth-quarter points to the Hawks in a Dec. 18 loss]. Thirty-nine points. Do you know how hard that is? You know how hard it is to give up 39 points in a quarter? That is embarrassing. I'm embarrassed. I don't know if anybody in that locker room is embarrassed, but I'm embarrassed. [...] If we do the same thing against Miami [in the Kings' next game, on Friday night], it'll be a 50-point fourth quarter."
(Do us a favor and just mentally insert "36 points" for every reference to "39" points, because that's how many New Orleans really scored. The general points still stand, though.)
"I can't control the turnovers. I can't make the passes for them," Malone continued. "At some point, these guys have got to take responsibility. Plenty of times this season, I've put it on me. And I'll do that. But I'll tell you what: Each guy in that locker room has got to start looking in the mirror and owning up and taking responsibility for their play. And we don't have a lot of that right now.
"We're going to continue to work. I'm going to continue to try to get the best out of this group. There's a lot of season left. But my challenge to these guys is: Who do we want to be? Are we just going to be a team that wins once in a blue moon, and comes out here and puts on a performance like that? [...] I mean, how many times do you have to hit rock bottom? I mean, look at our record. We've hit rock bottom four or five times now. Maybe some of these guys are so used to losing that they're accustomed to it. I'm not. I'm not used to losing. I'm used to being in the playoffs and being a competitive team that takes pride in its defense. Right now, we don't have a lot of guys that do that. So I'm not sure what their rock bottom is, but I hit mine about one week into the season."
While Malone's words might seem harsh, he wasn't the only member of the Kings laying into the team for its poor defensive effort, according to Jonathan Santiago of Cowbell Kingdom:
[Isaiah] Thomas compared his team’s focus on defense to that of a child with a low attention span for school. Teammate DeMarcus Cousins suggested they have a tendency to get “bored” with what works.
“The team has a problem with just being consistent,” Cousins said. “Once we find something that works, we have a tendency to go away from it or we get bored with it. But the thing is, if we just stick to that boring basketball, we’ll be a better team.”
Cousins didn’t mince words when it came to expressing his frustrations with the Kings’ play on defense. He’s well aware that he sounds like a broken record when discussing the matter at hand.
“It’s the same (expletive) every night,” Cousins said. “We break down defensively, we don’t talk. Same (expletive). When you keep up with the same (expletive), you’re gonna get the same results and that’s what we’ve been getting.”
The results have certainly been (expletive)-y — the Kings rank among the league's three worst teams in points allowed per possession, opposing field-goal percentage allowed, opposing 3-point percentage allowed (giving up an NBA-worst 40.2 percent from deep) and personal fouls committed.
As has been noted elsewhere, there's a pot-kettle-black element to noted defensive sieve Cousins calling out teammates' lack of defensive effort and commitment, but if you're looking on the bright side, at least there seems to be agreement among Sacramento's coach, star player and starting point guard about the Kings' primary problem — they lose defensive focus and they tend to float away from things that work for them. I'm reminded of a line from "Tommy Boy" delivered by Dan Aykroyd: "Great, you've pinpointed it. Step two is washing it off." That's easier said than done — as presently constituted, the Kings don't have a whole lot of plus defenders on their roster (or any, really) — but committing to consistently trying hard seems like a good start.
The hope is that Malone can find a way to get his players to do that before he finds himself unable to get up from yet another crash into his own personal rock bottom, and that he finds a middle ground between behind-closed-doors instruction and very loud public airing of grievances when it comes to getting everyone on the same page. This is the sort of thing you can get away with once as an unproven head coach who's 11 games under .500 in his first season at the helm, but if such postgame gripe sessions become the rule rather than the exception, Malone runs the risk of looking like a poor workman who'd rather blame his tools than revisit his craftsmanship.
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