The Sacramento Kings vs. Houston Rockets Series ( InStat Takeaways) by Ian Riaf

The Sacramento Kings came out of the gate hot with two unexpected grind out style wins against the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets. With a low roster turnover during the offseason, the Kings made moves around the margins while also selecting the versatile Tyrese Haliburton, a modern guard capable of playing both on and off the ball. Facing off against the Houston Rockets, a team that previously struggled with COVID-19 related sit-outs, the clash of personnel and styles would make for an exciting series style battle from a personnel standpoint. Using InStat, let’s dive into some film and numbers to develop some key takeaways from this series.

sacramento kings logo PNG image with transparent background | TOPpng

While Sacramento, thus far, has been in the middle of the pack in terms of forcing live-ball turnovers, they do a great job of generating offense off steals.

Houston Rockets - Wikipedia

While it’s a small sample size, Houston is doing around 10% fewer isolations per game compared to last season, rerouting these possessions towards transition and pick and rolls opportunities.


  1. Know his name: Jae’Sean Tate

Jae’Sean Tate checks almost every box. Even his verticality fouls look good. I will be frank and let you know that the first time I heard the name Jae’Sean Tate was over the summer, on a Hollinger & Duncan Podcast. The 6’4″ Ohio State product has emerged as yet another impact first-year player, one who has already earned rotation minutes for this Houston Rockets team. He excelled in transition, mixed it up on both ends, and didn’t shy away from contact. He also made some smart and quick decisions off the catch. Is he a big disguised as a wing? Is he a wing disguised as a big? He played the center spot over in Australia. Time will tell, but for now, Tate has become the perfect understudy to PJ Tucker.

First, let’s look at Tate’s versatility on defense, as he’s already closed games for defensive purposes. Take a close look at the second play of this series, Tate, on offense, understands that Fox will sag off on the perimeter to take away the corner. Fox’s speedy ability to close out may have taken away this open Sterling Brown look, but Tate’s presence to set a timely off-ball screen gives Brown enough space to get off this shot. On the ensuing play, Tate’s willing to step in and take a charge. Two impact plays not picked up by the traditional box score.

Even though the shot + volume from beyond the arc isn’t there at the moment, Tate did everything else on offense, he made well-timed cuts, set perfectly timed off-ball screens to and initiated off the live dribble. I’ve also been impressed with Tate’s ability to follow the play. He showed the perfect mix of quick decision making + physically + control.

It’s also interesting to look at the numbers from his 2019-20 season with the Sydney Kings, sort of a hybrid center on offense but a positionless player on defense.

Australian (2019-20 play types offense & defense)

(Heavy Emphasis on Postups and Cuts)

2. A More Optimized Harden Situation

In a vivid memory of one of Houston’s first microball games last season against the Utah Jazz, the Jazz ended up putting Rudy Gobert on Russell Westbrook, treating him as the only non-floor spacer. Things are different in Houston, especially when it comes to space. It’s only a three-game sample size, as the assist numbers may regress to usual James Harden standards, but thus far, Harden seems to have a lot more space on the floor to operate.

There are two almost identical plays, both defended by Buddy Hield, plays starting at (00:17) and at (1:32) where Harden fakes coming off a PJ Tucker pindown and opens up to receive a well-placed pass for an easy layup. Both times with Hield on his back, and in both plays, we can see the bigs, Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley outside the paint, forced to respect the idea of the Christian Wood above the break catch and shoot.

At times the Kings would play zone, but Harden found ways to start the offense higher with a pass to stretch out the zone. Kelly Iko at The Athletic had a great point about the number of isolation possessions going down for Harden this year as Harden could be doing more off the catch thanks to John Wall.

James Harden 2019-20

James Harden 2020-21

3. Kings Attempt Small Ball

With analytics at the forefront of the Kings front office reshuffle, the thought of this Sacramento team going small should be on the table. Early on, the Kings have had a traditional center (this includes Marvin Bagley) on the floor at all times, except early into the fourth quarter this team went modern. In only four minutes of play this lineup was a collective +8 and this was without Fox on the court. DeMarcus Cousins was in the game to start the fourth quarter. Two minutes in the Kings forced the Rockets hand by making them also play an iteration of their small ball lineup.

I was curious to see if they would eventually space it out with either Harrison Barnes or Nemanja Bjelica at the five spot to open up driving lanes for Fox and Haliburton. The Kings ended up pairing both stretch bigs together and it worked out as this unit had the best +/- of any Kings lineup this season, again a small sample, but still something to note. Microball may be an overused fad at the moment, but it makes a lot of sense for this Kings team, given their aggressive style of play in the open court.

Watching this film, count how many times a Kings player, on offense, without the ball, enters the paint. I counted seven times in a four minute stretch, in essence, there is a lot of space on the floor.

In another effort to play a smaller brand of basketball in game two of this series, the Kings played the same combination of Barnes and Bjelica alongside Kyle Guy, Glenn Robinson III and De’Aaron Fox. In another four minute stretch this lineup was a net neutral but again, it’s interesting to see these lineups start to take place. In short bursts they tried other iterations but with Barnes and Bjelica always on the floor together.

With Jabari Parker cleared to play, perhaps he is another viable option to play some minutes at the center spot, a place where he spent 42% of his time last season.

4. Christian Wood’s Brilliance

Throughout these two games, I was blown away by Christian Wood’s timing on both sides of the floor.

Wood seems like a nightmare to deal with for an opposing coach, he is capable of making perfectly executed slips to the basket, catching and shooting quickly and timing his help contests with enough patience to alter his opponent’s shot. This makes Christian Wood a candidate for both an All-Star selection and another shot at the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. The Harden-Wood, pick and roll/pop makes for a deadly, high gravity combo. With Wood on the floor, Harden can do the Clint Capela stuff when he wants to, but Wood can pop to open up space, leaving the paint entirely open for a Harden-based rim attack.

5. Tyrese Haliburton, the Candidate for the Impact Rookie of the Year

We have the stats rookie of the year, usually measured in points per game, and then there is the under the radar, newly dubbed, Impact Rookie of the Year Award. Through five games in, Tyrese Haliburton deserves this award as he is already closing games for this Sacramento team because of his defense.

The rangy Iowa State combo guard was on the floor as the Kings closed out their Thursday night loss. He still needs to improve his on-ball strength when guarding the isolation. Haliburton seemed to reach a bit too often, but his attention to detail when taking away passing angles and number of active arm deflections caused havoc down the stretch. His unusually low-push shot may need to go through the Lonzo Ball resurrection, as getting this shot off in tight spaces doesn’t look sustainable at the moment.

Overall, Haliburton made many high-level decisions throughout pivotal parts of this game.

6. The Efficient Sterling Brown Rotation Minutes

Buried on the Milwaukee Bucks bench for several seasons, Sterling Brown, to us NBA fans, felt more like a Wes Iwundu than a Wes Mathews. He played without an identity as he only saw 3:33 total minutes of action during the Bucks playoff run last season.

While Brown is a likely candidate to see his minutes in Houston drop with the return of Eric Gordon and John Wall, his ability to be a low-usage stretch wing and play quality minutes as the point of attack defender is something that should not go under the radar and makes him a possible ninth man candidate. Brown took turns guarding De’Aaron Fox on the ball as he struggled with this task but provided some excellent instances of help defense off of scrambles. Again, it’s a small sample size, it’s early in the season, but already coach Stephen Silas is much more willing to go deeper into his bench and experiment with different lineups.

6. The Buddy Transition Pull up and Why Sacramento Needs to Run

The Kings can and should run as they rank as one of the top teams in points per playoff of a steal. Despite their success in the open floor in this context, the Kings are around league average when getting that steal. They do a better job of pushing the pace off live rebounds as they have two young guards in Fox and Halliburton who love to run the floor.

While Hield won’t seek to initiate a transition off the pass, his tendency to shoot the transition early-clock three-pointer was common throughout both games as he frequently connected on these looks. His numbers in the open floor suggest these early-clock transition looks, paired with the De’Aaron Fox live ball push up the court account for why Sacramento is a run and gun type of team.

7. The Potential Rejuvenation of John Wall

We all remember John Wall, the vicious transition scorer, a player who once held the title of league’s fastest player in a straight line, a title currently held by De’Aaron Fox. Defending Fox, Wall was outmatched in isolation, but on occasion, he played lockdown point of attack defense, a great sign for the returning Wall.

The general haste at which Wall plays with still leads to the occasional thrown up show, sloppy handle, or mistimed turnover. Overall, the speed at which he plays with is an excellent offsetting factor to the traditional James Harden rock-you-to-sleep style game. It was not all pretty transition layups, but Wall did an outstanding job of drawing fouls with his aggressiveness going downhill.

Again, a two-game sample size too small, but to lead a Harden-less Rockets team to victory in the second game of this series matchup is an impressive accomplishment early into this season. He is also doing more initiating and finding Harden for the rare catch and shoot Harden three pointer. Wall may not be 100% back right now, but his grab-and-go game, spurts of defensive intensity, and willingness to attack have been a fun early season watch.

8. The Eric Gordon Spot

This is a fun one, but my favorite NBA geometry puzzle piece overlaps Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker’s shot charts. One will find a fully covered three-point range, again a perfect puzzle solved. I’ve always noticed how Gordon has a high tendency to hoist from the 45-degree angles on each side of the hoop, contested or uncontested, as he has the green light at all times. Ever since Gordon has come to Houston he’s been above the 90th percentile each season in above the break attempts as his conversion rate has fluctuated around league average during this same stretch.

I am not sure if teams are willing to let him shoot from this spot considering shot below average from above the break last season, but at times these attempts look forced and rushed. This has always been the case with Gordon, but I’ve always been amazed at the sheer volume of these 45-degree attempts throughout his time in Houston.

*All videos shared are aimed to prove a performance purpose and carry no commercial value to Advance Pro Basketball. All videos are taken from analysis done with InStat Basketball our parent organization.
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