This wasn’t how it was supposed to go if you saw the Kings’ last two games.
The Houston Rockets are the NBA’s top-scoring team, and the Kings’ defense has been miserable much of the season, especially in their previous two games, giving up an average of 119 points.
But the Kings held the Rockets 16 points below their average and to 41.3 percent shooting in defeating Houston 106-91 on Sunday at Sleep Train Arena.
It was the kind of defensive effort Kings coach Michael Malone has been searching for.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“I feel a lot better than I did after the last two games,” Malone said. “It must have been a great film session (Saturday), I guess.”
The Kings had plenty to review over their previous two losses. There were breakdowns all over the floor with opposing guards getting to their preferred spots with little resistance and big men finishing uncontested shots.
The Kings’ focus was much better Sunday. Malone said the Kings were embarrassed by their play of late.
Some of that also had to do with playing the Rockets, who have two All-Stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden.
“We had our antennas up,” Malone said. “That’s a very good team over there. So when James Harden, Dwight Howard and company come in, guys are ready to play.”
The Rockets scored 28 points in the first quarter and shot 55 percent. But instead of conceding it would be another game when the Kings would allow a team to score close to 120 points, Sacramento held the Rockets to 36.4 percent shooting the rest of the game.
“We just played hard,” Kings guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We played hard on defense; we were dialed. Attention to detail was good for us in practice (Saturday) and scout (work) before the game.”
Malone has shown he gets irritated perhaps most by poor effort and a lack of preparation, what the coach calls game-plan discipline, which includes studying film and scouting notes so players know where to be on the court against opponents.
Center DeMarcus Cousins said fixing some of the defensive problems were simple.
“Just being in our spots; that’s the main thing,” Cousins said. “We still made a lot of mistakes defensively, but just being in our spots, being in our rotations, just helping one another slowed them down a lot.”
The improved play defensively didn’t completely overshadow the offensive highlights in Rudy Gay’s home debut. Gay had 26 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in his first game at Sleep Train Arena. Gay scored the sixth-most points in a home debut in franchise history, fourth-most in Sacramento history.
Mitch Richmond holds the record with 35 points in his home debut Nov. 6, 1991.
“We won,” Gay said. “I’m just happy we got the win. First win as a King.”
Cousins had 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Thomas had 19 points and eight assists.
Harden left the game briefly in the third quarter with a left ankle injury but returned and finished with 25 points to lead the Rockets (16-9). Howard had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The production from Cousins, Gay and Thomas is what the Kings were hoping for when they traded for Gay last week.
“Now you have two guys that you can trust with the ball, Rudy and Isaiah Thomas, all around the perimeter,” Malone said. “Then you have a go-to guy in the post with DeMarcus Cousins. There’s three different pieces that you can go to throughout the game.”
But for Malone, it all goes back to defense. When the Kings defend well, they can get out in transition and create scoring opportunities for everyone and take advantage of the athleticism Gay brings to the roster.
“When we defend like (we did against Houston), we become a much better offensive team and a very tough team to beat,” Malone said.