The Kings had a good idea of what the Houston Rockets’ offense would try to do to them Sunday. But, especially for a younger team, expecting it and defending it are two different things.
The Rockets launched shot after shot from 3-point range. MVP candidate James Harden sauntered about the court, directing their offense in almost casual fashion. And the Kings had few answers, surrendering a season-high point total in a 135-128 loss at Golden 1 Center.
It also marked the Kings’ highest scoring output of the year. But seven players in double figures weren’t enough to overcome the playoff-bound Rockets, who shot 56.3 percent from the floor and made 18 three-pointers in a game that at times closer resembled a track meet.
“They shot it well,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “There were times we didn’t close out all the way, and then there were also too many times where they just blew straight past us and shot lay-ups. It’s a good experience. Even veteran teams struggle playing against that kind of system.”
The Rockets, who have already set an NBA record for 3-pointers in a season, came out firing from long range, making eight of their first nine attempts in a 42-point first quarter. Oak Ridge High product Ryan Anderson went 4 for 4 in the quarter en route to making his first six attempts, several at the expense of Kings forward Skal Labissiere.
Labissiere had a stark pivot from having to guard Lakers bruiser Julius Randle on Friday night to Anderson, a stretch four who at one point Sunday swished a 3-pointer from 30 feet.
Joerger said it’s part of the learning curve for the rookie forward, and that he was glad to see Labissiere answer on the offensive end, where he led the Kings with 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting.
“He kept attacking offensively,” Joerger said. “ ‘If you want to take me out in the deep water and shoot these jumpers, I’m going to try to get you down here in the post.’ And I thought he was aggressive.”
Labissiere said he thought the Kings’ defensive communication improved as the game went on. After trailing by double digits most of the first half, the Kings closed to within six points midway through the third quarter. Guard Ty Lawson led the push, scoring by 12 of his 20 points in the third.
But the Rockets answered with a 15-2 run, their explosiveness making up for their own defensive shortcomings. The Kings played one of their more efficient offensive games of the season, shooting 50 percent from the floor, matching the Rockets’ 26 assists and committing just five turnovers to Houston’s 18.
But Joerger said he thought the Kings tried to match Houston’s pace in going for “home runs.” And while the Rockets made 18 of 43 3-point attempts, the Kings converted just 9 of 31.
“Couple of those go in, maybe they get a little bit more pressure into some of their shots,” Joerger said.
Houston, though, had the catalyst on the floor Sunday in Harden, who recorded his 21st triple-double of the season with 35 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds. Whether scoring himself or setting up shots for Anderson and Clint Capela (18 points), the guard appeared to control the flow of the game.
Harden driving to the basket often freed up Kings shooting guard Buddy Hield going the other way in transition. But Hield shot 4 for 16 and 1 for 8 from 3, finishing with 12 points.
“I had a bunch of opportunities, and I didn’t capitalize on that,” the rookie said. “As a shooter and a scorer, you like games like this because you get to be more free and you get to play. It was one of those games where I wasn’t able to get in my comfort zone and shoot the ball how I wanted to. But this is basketball, man.”