From Klay Thompson scoring 37 points in one quarter, to James Harden’s 51 points on April 1, a lot of guards have had their way against the Kings this season.
It didn’t get any easier for Sacramento’s guards Friday night with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook leading the Thunder to a 116-103 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Kings have seen more dominant performances than Westbrook’s, but his 27 points and 10 assists helped send them to their second consecutive loss.
“The matchup of Ray (McCallum) against Westbrook, we didn’t win that, but we didn’t get killed there,” said Kings coach George Karl. “Westbrook can dominate you; he can take control of the game. I think they hurt us in other ways.”
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McCallum had 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting and four assists. The Thunder is tied with New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and would lose a tiebreaker – so the Kings knew Westbrook would be focused.
“We had to come out with an aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor,” McCallum said. “(I) try to control him as much as I can ... We knew he was going to come out and be aggressive, but we tried to contain him as much as we could. Down the stretch, he made big shots and some big plays for his team.”
Others in the backcourt had good games: Shooting guards Dion Waiters (Thunder) and Ben McLemore (Kings) had 22 and 20 points, respectively.
But McCallum and McLemore weren’t enough to stop the Thunder. The Kings had some of their usual issues, namely defensive breakdowns and turnovers (16).
“It’s a tough night every night in the Western Conference and throughout the whole NBA,” McLemore said. “I just have to go out there and compete against these talented guys. I just want to go out there to do what I’ve got to do to stop these guys in a different way and learn from it.”
The big games by opponents aren’t all the Kings players’ fault, Karl said.
“I’m going to give my guys a little credit,” Karl said. “We don’t have a lot of disruption involved in our system; we’re just playing straight-up basketball most nights. And if someone’s kind of getting torched a little bit, you change up the matchup that way.”
Take the Houston game, in which Harden dominated whomever the Kings put in front of him.
“Conceptually in the Houston game, we should have went to double Harden earlier than we did, and it was very effective when we did it,” Karl said.
By the time the Kings doubled Harden with about four minutes to play, he already had surpassed 40 points en route to his career high.
Karl said limited practice time makes it tough to be as creative on defense as he’d like.
“Again, you can’t get real creative in about 10 practices,” Karl said. “You can zone a little bit, but I don’t know if you’re going to get a double team and a rotation and a scramble situation you’re comfortable with.”
It’s also why Karl has been reluctant to try exotic looks on the fly. Or even make basic changes much, such as going to a zone defense.
Without practice, he’s uncertain how it will play out.
“I’d love to (change strategy), but I’m not a guy who throws something out,” Karl said. “We tried some zone in Utah, and (the Kings) gave up a layup. Those things have to be worked on in practice, and there’s got to be a connection and chemistry between when you use them and how you use them.”
That leaves Karl with one option that hasn’t worked for most of the season.
“The coaching is trying to find a matchup that can control that hot player,” Karl said.
McCallum is trying to improve his defense, which is tough when rule changes favor offensive players.
“You’ve got to be prepared, and it’s a great learning experience for myself,” McCallum said. “I’m getting an opportunity to go against some of the top players in this league. Just keep learning from it, stay in attack mode and (be) aggressive.”
Notes – Karl, like many voters, has trouble deciding between Harden and Golden State’s Stephen Curry for league MVP.
“I flip-flop,” Karl said. “When Harden had 51 on us, it was Harden. But what that kid Curry did (Thursday with 45 points and nine assists), I’d probably go with Curry because that was a show.”
▪ The Kings expect to have an update on center DeMarcus Cousins on Saturday. He has missed three games with a sore right foot and saw a foot specialist in Los Angeles on Friday.