Tyrese Haliburton

Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Sacramento Kings points back on defense against the San Antonio Spurs at Golden 1 Center on Dec. 19, 2021, in Sacramento, California. (Kavin Mistry/Getty Images/TNS)

The Los Angeles Clippers knew what to do against the Kings.

On the first play of last Wednesday’s game, LA’s Ivica Zubac made a cut and was left unguarded. He slammed home the first bucket of the game. On the next possession, Terance Mann stood behind a screen and casually drained a 3-pointer for a 5-0 lead. Then Mann cut behind the Kings defense for an alley-oop bucket. The Clippers went off to a 7-2 lead and never were seriously threatened.

The book is out on how to attack the Kings. It’s an easy read.

A year after the Kings had one of the worst defenses in league history, Sacramento still has gaping problems. The Kings had the second-worst defensive rating in the league at 112.8 as of Friday morning. That’s better than last year’s 116.5, but an improvement off one of the worst ratings in history.

Sacramento’s glaring problem this year is interior scoring. While the Kings’ numbers have ticked up for steals and blocks, they allow a league-worst 53.1 points per game in the paint. The NBA’s best interior defenders, the Miami Heat, allow 39.1 points per game. The second-worst team, the Clippers, allow 49.1 points per game.

Yes, because of coronavirus protocols the Kings were playing with a bunch of bench players and G-League players against the Clippers. But it’s not like this is a new issue. Sacramento has struggled with defense for years. Guards struggle to stop the initial drive, forwards are slow to help and the center is staring at charging offensive players.

Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton didn’t need a stat sheet to comment on his team’s defense against the Clippers. It was the same as usual.

“Rebounds. A lot of it is offensive putbacks, and those are points in the paint,” he said. “Offensive rebounds, makes us look terrible, things like that. But honestly, they’re missing shots and just putting it back in. That’s the biggest thing is second-chance points and points in the paint.”

At best, the Kings have a few regulars who rank in the middle of the NBA’s defensive ratings, led by Maurice Harkless and Davian Mitchell. Richaun Holmes, the team’s big man, is the highest-rated regular starter, ranking 305th out of 519 players as of Friday morning. Tyrese Haliburton was 362nd, Buddy Hield 404th, Harrison Barnes 470th and De’Aaron Fox 474th.

It isn’t any one guy.

“It’s about the team, not about the individual,” acting coach Doug Christie said. “So we have to make sure we’re going to the ball, we’re helping our players.”

By contrast, the Clippers forced the Kings to take a couple of “grenade” shots – Christie likened the countdown to the end of the shot clock to lobbing a grenade before it explodes.

Still, the Kings hung around long enough to make the Clippers squirm. But Paul George was just biding his time before chewing up the defense when it mattered. Midway through the fourth quarter, George worked an interior give-and-go that led to a dunk for Serge Ibaka and a 91-81 lead with 7:08 left. They worked a give and go again to make it 93-84. Ibaka, the big man, finished with 17 points in just 20 minutes while George had six assists and five steals to go with 17 points.

Christie broke down exactly what it looks like for a defender when George went to work.

“(Tristan Thompson) took his body off (his man) to go help and we’ve gotta make sure we feed back and hit him with a body,” Christie said. “Either it didn’t happen or guys were a little late. It wasn’t a lack of effort or anything like that. Paul George understands how to manipulate a defense. It’s so tantalizing for TT. He has to go over and help. And at the last minute, (George) is dropping it off.”

It’s simple, smart basketball. And the Kings still need to figure out how to stop it.

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