Kings guard Kevin Huerter returns to spark comeback win over Suns; De’Aaron Fox injured
Kevin Huerter threw up three fingers after hitting a big 3-pointer to key Sacramento’s comeback and a sellout crowd erupted as the Kings moved closer to the playoffs with a huge win over the Phoenix Suns.
Huerter came back from a three-game injury absence to post 29 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 135-127 victory over the Suns on Friday night before a record crowd of 18,151 at Golden 1 Center.
Huerter went 10 of 18 from the field and 6 of 12 from 3-point range. He scored 16 points in the third quarter, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as the Kings seized control after trailing by 11 at halftime.
“The crowd was huge,” Huerter said. “That third quarter was big. It started with getting stops. (That) allowed us to get out in transition. It just felt like that first half, the energy just felt weird. The first quarter, a little bit of the second quarter, we were playing their game. We were playing a little too slow. It was a halfcourt game. We couldn’t really get going offensively, so we had to pick up the pace, continue to try to move the ball and look for better looks.”
Domantas Sabonis had 27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists for the Kings (44-29), who strengthened their hold on the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Harrison Barnes added 23 points.
De’Aaron Fox left the game due to right hamstring soreness late in the third quarter and did not return. Kings coach Mike Brown did not have an official update on Fox after the game, but he said general manager Monte McNair told him Fox wanted to reenter the game.
“Until I get a quote-unquote official report, there’s always concern in situations like that, but we’ll wait and see what they say and then kind of go from there,” Brown said.
Fox’s status will be focal point Saturday as the Kings prepare to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back.
Devin Booker scored 32 points for the Suns (38-35), who have lost three in a row and six of their last seven, including two losses to Sacramento. Terrence Ross came off the bench to score 30. Chris Paul had 15 points, six rebounds and 13 assists.
The Suns fell a half-game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the West. The Kings lead the Clippers by 5 ½ games and the Suns by six with nine games remaining. The Kings also evened the season series against the Suns at 2-2, giving them the tiebreaker advantage by virtue of their conference record.
The Kings caught the Suns on the final leg of a three-game road trip with Kevin Durant (ankle) and Deandre Ayton (hip) out due to injuries. Durant, a 13-time All-Star who was acquired at the NBA trade deadline, is reportedly hoping to return for Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Kings, meanwhile, were back at full strength as Huerter returned to the starting lineup after missing the past three games with a right popliteus strain. Brown said Huerter did not have a restriction on minutes and there were no concerns about throwing him back into the lineup.
“His basketball IQ and feel is really high, and he can fit in seamlessly with anyone, in my opinion, just because he has a great feel for how to play the game, especially offensively,” Brown said. “… He had a great practice yesterday. We had a little bit of contact yesterday. He was good and didn’t seem like he had really missed a beat. He’s missed games before and got reinserted back into the lineup and seemed to pick up where he left off.”
Huerter was hot when he went down with the injury in a March 16 game against the Brooklyn Nets. Over the first seven games in March, he averaged 19.7 points while making 30 of 51 (.588) from 3-point range.
The Kings missed the gravity Huerter provides as one of the league’s most lethal long-range shooters. They were held to 109 points in Tuesday’s blowout loss to the Boston Celtics, well below their league leading average of 118.5.
“It’s great to get Kevin back on the floor,” Brown said. “His ability to create separation without the basketball is really — it’s up there with the elite guys in the league. I’ve been around some pretty good ones. He’s up there with that. Any time you have a player who is capable of that, who shoots it the way he does and draws as much attention as he does, it’s huge.”
None of that materialized in a lackluster first half for Sacramento. The Kings went 6 of 21 from 3-point range and found themselves trailing 67-56 at the break after getting outrebounded 23-13 and outscored 42-32 on points in the paint.
The Kings came out with much better energy at the start the second half, outscoring the Suns 16-7 over the first 4:19. Booker and Paul were both assessed technical fouls as Phoenix’s frustrations mounted. Some of that stemmed from two transition take fouls that gave the Kings a free throw and possession of the ball.
The Kings cut the deficit to two on a pair of free throws by Barnes. They tied the game on a basket by Sabonis and took a 79-76 lead on a 3-pointer by Huerter with 6:01 to play in the third quarter. That was just the beginning as Huerter caught fire, hitting two 3s in a span of 1:20 as part of a 15-1 run that put the Kings up 87-77.
“He looked fresh,” Barnes said. “... It was good to see him out there. He’s been working really hard, and I think the biggest thing with this team is we hate not being in the flow, so I think for him he was just trying to get back. Obviously, he made a huge impact for us and he played great.”
Suns coach Monty Williams agreed.
“A couple of times, we went under on him (on screens),” Williams said. “I mean, he’s one of the best shooters in the league, and so we went under on him a couple of times and ... that got him going. Outside of that, he’s a really good player, but he also bullied us at the rim tonight a couple of times.”
Sacramento led 101-93 after outscoring Phoenix 45-26 in the third quarter. The Suns cut the deficit to five on a basket by Ross early in the fourth. They got within four on a three-point play by Booker with 1:56 remaining, but Barnes came up with a big bucket in the final minute and made four free throws in the final 7.1 seconds to secure the victory.
Huerter said the crowd’s excitement was a factor during Sacramento’s big third-quarter run.
“It’s huge,” Huerter said. “You can use the crowd as a weapon, especially when you’re on a roll and the building gets going. Other teams might tighten up, so you try to keep that momentum going and we did in the third. It just felt like it was a continuous run. I’m not sure what the breakdown was, but we went from down 12 to up 10 and a lot of that felt like it happened all at once, so they were huge in that span.”
Kings forward Keegan Murray made three 3-pointers to move closer to Donovan Mitchell’s rookie record.
Mitchell set the record for 3-point goals by a rookie with 187 in 2017-18. Mitchell broke a record that was previously held by Damian Lillard, who made 185 in 2012-13. Murray ranks third with 178 after surpassing the likes of Stephen Curry, Landry Shamet, Luka Doncic, Anthony Edwards and Saddiq Bey.
Murray needs 10 more 3-point goals over the last nine games to break Mitchell’s record. That is well within reach given his average of 2.5 3-pointers per game.
Murray, who came out of Iowa as the No. 4 pick in the 2022 NBA draft, is averaging 11.9 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 44.4% from the field and 40.4% from 3-point range.
“He’s a really, really good shooter, especially for a young guy, and any time he’s open we want him to let it fly,” Brown said. “… You knew he could shoot the ball, but I didn’t know he’d shoot the ball at the level he’s shooting it at. You just encourage him to shoot as many shots as he can when he’s out on the floor because he’s an elite shooter for a young fella.”
Salute to Kings fans
Even Booker had high praise for Kings fans following the game.
“Fans have always been good here,” he said. “Now they have their “’Light the Beam’ thing going and everybody’s bought into that, but fans in Sac have been good since my first year. I remember playing at the old arena. It was lit in there. Always fun.”