Murray, Huerter finally shine together in Kings' win vs. Thunder

Murray, Huerter finally shine together in Kings' win vs. Thunder originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SACRAMENTO – The Kings entered the 2023-24 NBA season eager and ready to build off the newfound success they had last season.

In a small seven-game sample size, they did not get off to a great start. It didn’t help that their best player, Kings All-Star point guard De’Aaron Fox, has missed the last five games due to an ankle injury, and a timetable for his return is unknown.

When Fox went down in the Kings’ overtime win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 29, it was Malik Monk who took over and showed out in his place.

Thereafter, it was anyone's guess who would step up in Fox’s absence. Would it continue to be Monk? Davion Mitchell? Colby Jones? Or perhaps the two best shooters on the team – Keegan Murray and Kevin Huerter – could have big offensive showings to help elevate the team without Fox.

Quite frankly, none of the above happened. Fox is such a special and unique player that there really is no “replacing” him and what he does on the court. The team agreed it would take a collective effort from everyone up and down the roster.

Maybe aside from last week’s loss to the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco, that group effort was nonexistent. Certain players had glimpses of great individual performances, such as Monk, Keon Ellis and Domantas Sabonis. But without Fox, this team failed to have the one thing they prided themselves on all last year – togetherness.

Without their star playmaker, Sacramento was 1-3 entering Friday’s contest.

Coming off two humiliating losses in Houston against the Rockets and an ugly win against a shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers team, the Kings were presented with a challenge Friday night against a young, up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder squad led by All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and 7-foot rookie Chet Holmgren.

It was the NBA In-Season Tournament opener at Golden 1 Center. With a new court and new uniforms, the Kings looked like a new team. Or maybe, they slightly resembled the one they were last season.

Sure, they didn’t shoot the 3-ball to their standards, but their offense was flowing in other ways.

Huerter, who shot 40 percent from 3-point range last season with the Kings, was shooting just 28.6 percent from behind the arc this season. On Friday, he broke out early with 15 first-quarter points and three treys.

He made only one additional 3-pointer the rest of the game but finished 11 of 19 (57.8 percent) from the field.

Aside from dropping a team-high 28 points, Huerter added nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and one block in 34 minutes. The box score originally had him with 10 rebounds, which would have been his first double-double of the season, but one of his boards was taken away after the game.

Nonetheless, what can’t be taken away is the impact he had on both ends of the floor.

“Trying to do it all,” Huerter said after the Kings’ 105-98 win. “Us playing big minutes tonight, you're going to need that [from] whoever's on the court on that given game on that given night. Doing those little things. You guys have been around all year, coach is trying to preach defensively, offensively rebounding.

“Keegan and [Domantas Sabonis]’s offensive rebounding tonight was huge, big part of us getting the W. Second chance points for the second straight game. So just those little things, it's what it takes sometimes to get out of a shooting slump.”

And right behind Huerter was second-year forward Murray, who, too, is experiencing a slump of his own this season.

Murray, who broke the league’s all-time rookie 3-point record last season, was shooting 25 percent from deep through the first seven games of the season. On Friday, when he noticed his shot from behind the arc still wasn’t falling, he found other ways to contribute offensively.

“Yeah, at this point, I’m just trying to affect the game in different ways,” Murray said after the win. “Obviously, everyone knows I'm not shooting the ball well at all right now and I'm just trying to find ways where I can get easier shots, get a free throw, get a layup, something else to spark me.

“So just trying to do that and hopefully I'll help.”

It did.

Murray attacked the basket, even throwing down a vicious poster dunk over Holmgren in the first half that completely blew the roof off Golden 1 Center. He went 0 of 5 from downtown in the first half, but he didn’t let that stop him from letting "that thing fly” in the second.

The 23-year-old knocked down three straight triples in the second half, and finished with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, adding 11 rebounds and three steals in 40 minutes.

In the beginning of the season, Murray constantly was asked about Huerter’s shooting slump to which he said he wasn’t worried and added that he had the utmost confidence in his teammate. A few weeks later, it was Murray who sat at the podium as reporters asked him about his own slump.

That’s just the nature of the game. Shooters have stretches of bad games. But it’s how they respond and how they find other ways to contribute that speak volumes.

For Huerter and Murray, it seems like the two have taken turns with their slumps. They have been teeter-tottering with unbalanced performances.

But Friday night was the first time in what feels like a long time that the two shooters – collectively – made an impact.

“I mean, it definitely helps. winning helps solve a lot of problems,” Murray said. “And everyone on our team has me and Kevin's back whether we’re shooting the ball great or when we’re shooting the ball bad. Night’s like this really help, help our team camaraderie and everything that guys are going through.”

Of course, Murray and Huerter won’t have huge games every single night. But when they both can contribute in the slightest way offensively, good things happen for Sacramento.

And with Fox out for the foreseeable future, they certainly hope their spark continues.