Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray return to form as Kings claw back to .500

Huerter and Murray star in win over OKC, Keon Ellis proves he's a player

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No one was truly convinced that the Sacramento Kings would hold up against a young and upcoming Oklahoma City Thunder squad on Friday night. Even the odds makers picked OKC by two points, despite the Kings hosting the Thunder in their first game of the In-Season tournament. 

Maybe it was the two shelackings the Kings took in Houston. Maybe it was an overtime win over a suspect Portland Trail Blazers team missing two starting guards coming into the night and then had another guard go down in the first five minutes.

There is no question that the Kings have been shaky in the first two weeks of the season, but when they stepped on the court against the Thunder, it was like it was the 2022-23 season again and everything was fine.

Despite missing De’Aaron Fox for the fifth straight game and Trey Lyles for the first eight to open the season, the Kings moved back to .500 with a convincing wire-to-wire 105-98 victory. The win is good for the team’s standing in the In-Season tournament, but the performances from Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray were music to coach Mike Brown’s ears. 

“Everybody understands that those guys are great shooters and for us, it’s just a matter of keeping them uplifted and staying as positive as we can with them, but also pushing them in other areas, ” Brown said. “I push them both to defend. I push them both to rebound. I push them both to do the little things…and if you’re open, just shoot the ball, because I believe in it.”

This early season has been a balancing act for Brown. The word “push” that he used in the quote above is maybe a perfect word. His focus on the defensive end requires a new level of intensity from every player. By demanding that these two also focus on rebounding and filling up the box score in other ways may have overwhelmed the pair. 

Huerter is slowly regaining his form after a shaky preseason and first week of the season. Brown put a lot of pressure on the 25-year-old shooting guard, especially on the defensive end and his early response wasn’t great. There was even a moment where Chris Duarte moved into Huerter’s spot in the starting lineup during the preseason.

Beginning with the second loss to the Rockets, Huerter began to return to form. He scored a modest 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting from long range against the Rockets, but his pace and energy were different. 

In the win over Portland, Huerter had another quality outing, posting 17 points, five rebounds and four assists while knocking down four triples. You could see the confidence growing in his game and when he stepped on the court against OKC, Huerter morphed into one of his alter-egos, Red Velvet, and the Thunder had no answer. 

“Talk about energy and rhythm, just playing within our offense,” Huerter said. “I think offensively, we’ve looked better the last three games and I don’t think it’s a surprise that my game has come along in those three games. I’m just trying to feel the energy and rhythm of what we do -- cutting fast, cutting hard and just trusting the ball will find me.”

Huerter torched OKC for 28 points, nine rebounds and three steals. His pace within the offense was impressive and you could see the Thunder’s defense start to gravitate towards him on the perimeter. 

With Huerter flying around the perimeter, the spacing opened up for Domantas Sabonis to move inside. Once Sabonis got loose, the defense started to collapse, which gave Murray the opportunity to move more freely.

In his second season, the high expectations have seemingly weighed heavy on Murray. After earning All-NBA Rookie first team honors, the sharpshooting forward just hasn’t looked like himself at all through seven games. 

His night started off similar to the last few with some missed 3-point attempts. But he eventually mixed it up and started attacking the paint. This new approach seemed to light a fire under the No. 4 overall pick from the 2022 NBA Draft.

“At this point, I’m just trying to affect the game in different ways,” Murray said. “Obviously, everyone knows I’m not shooting the ball well at all right now. I’m just trying to find ways where I can get easier shots, get a free throw, get a layup, get something else that will spark me.”

Not known for his aggressive takes to the basket, Murray is trying something new this season. He has a contest with Fox for who can put up the best dunk. Despite missing time, Fox already has one or two big dunks registered, but he might have fallen behind Murray after this one.

Over his previous four games, Murray hit just 4-for-27 from behind the arc. After getting to the rim and engaging in the game in different ways, the 3-ball finally started to fall late. Murray missed all five of his 3-point attempts in the first half, but then dropped in 3-of-5 in the final 24 minutes. He finished the game with 24 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, posting his first 20-point game of the season, as well as his first double-double.

You never want your best player to sit out games, but the absence of Fox may help both Huerter and Murray in the long run. The Kings need both players to take another leap forward this season in production.

The early results weren’t great, but Huerter and Murray have persevered through a rough patch. They have both been honest and open with their struggles, and have taken personal accountability during a rocky patch. This was a game that they can build on as individuals, but also as a team.

In addition to the strong showing from Huerter and Murray, Sabonis posted his first triple-double of the season and 33rd of his career, finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. Sabonis now has 15 triple-doubles in a Kings uniform, surpassing the Sacramento era record of 14 set by Chris Webber. 

Oscar Robertson owns the franchise record for most triple-doubles with 176, so Sabonis has a little ways to go before reaching the Big O.  

Wearing the crown

The Kings have ditched the defensive player of the game chain for a gold crown this season. At 4-4, there have already been a few different players to earn the award, but a new and unexpected player took home the hardware on Friday night.

Keon Ellis, a second-year two-way player starting his second NBA game, was all smiles in the locker room after earning high praise from both his teammates and coaches. 

Ellis came into this season without any promises from the Kings. The undrafted prospect out of Alabama turned in a strong first season last year with the Stockton Kings of the G League, but he wasn’t part of the rotation or even secondary rotation to start the season.

With Fox out of action and the starting lineup sputtering, Brown gave Ellis a shot against the Blazers and then another start against OKC and All-NBA scoring threat Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Ellis didn’t stop SGA, but he made life difficult on the Thunder’s leading scorer. He finished the night with eight points, four rebounds, two assists and three blocks. His putback late in the game was stunning and his energy level on the court is infectious. 

Despite his strong play over the last two games, Ellis will still likely spend some time bouncing back-and-forth between Sacramento and Stockton this season. He’s made the most of his opportunity. He will likely start until Fox is back from his ankle injury and he’s proven that he is an option as the Kings move through a long 82 game schedule.

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