Trailing by two points with the clock winding down, Damian Lillard found an open Dorell Wright in the corner for his 10th assist. On a night where the Kings otherwise limited the Blazers from beyond the 3-point line, it was the 3-point shot, their season-long Achilles heel, that once again buried them.
“The 3-point line has given us trouble the whole year,” said Kings head coach Michael Malone last Thursday, before the team headed to Oakland to face the Warriors. “There’s no secret. We have to do a much better job of identifying who the shooters are, giving them the respect that they deserve.”
To date, the Kings’ 37.9 percent opposing 3-point percentage ranks 29th in the league, with only the lowly Bucks faring worse (38.4). They’ve also surrendered 189 corner 3’s (2.4 per game), which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Of the seven teams that have allowed more corner treys, only the Heat boast a winning record.
Since the March 23 win over Milwaukee, the Kings have been without starting point guard Isaiah Thomas as he nurses a deep thigh contusion. Filling in for Thomas the last nine games, Ray McCallum has taken ownership of Sacramento’s latest struggles guarding the perimeter.
“It’s obviously an area that we have to improve on and it starts with me at the point of attack,” said McCallum before the Kings hosted the Thunder Tuesday night. “I gotta do a better job, but these last two games have been tough. We’ve been playing against teams with some top guards in the league, so it’s been a challenge. But it’s something that we’re learning and watching from and getting better for it.”
Since McCallum began starting in place of the injured Thomas nine games ago, the Kings’ perimeter defense – at least in terms of opposing 3-point percentage – has declined. But let’s be clear; it was never good. In the previous 69 games, the Kings allowed teams to make 37.5 percent of their long-distance attempts and 8.5 per game. Over the last nine, Sacramento’s opponents have converted ten 3-pointers per contest at a rate of 40.9 percent.
Thomas’ defense is missed. They have been forced to trot out two rookie guards against the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Lillard in their last four games, not to mention additional sharpshooters like Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Caron Butler and Wesley Matthews.
Against the Warriors, McCallum and McLemore not only scored seven total points on 2-21 shooting and 0-5 from deep, but they also allowed Curry and Thompson to score 34 combined points in limited minutes. The Golden State guards hit four 3’s in eight attempts.
Two days later, the Kings were outscored by 24 points from the 3-point line in a game they lost to the Mavericks by two points. Calderon hit 4-of-7 from deep. Then Tuesday against the Thunder, Butler nailed all six of his 3-point shots (Derrick Williams kept running into Nick Collison screens), as Oklahoma City finished 12-for-22 from deep, 54.5 percent.
Thomas’ absence clearly hurts the defense. Although he’s undersized, Thomas plays a pesky style of D. According to 82games.com, when Thomas is on the court, the Kings allow 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he sits.
For McLemore, the stats show just the opposite. The Kings give up 4.6 more points when the rookie shooting guard is on the court versus off. When McLemore is in the game, Sacramento is allowing an embarrassing 112.2 points per 100 possessions. Of course, team defense takes five players to get the job done, but McLemore’s poor defensive showing has contributed more than its fair share.
“I think they play extremely hard,” said Durant before Tuesday’s clash with the Kings. “McLemore, I think, is a big-time defender. Of course, playing in this league is quicker than college, so it’s just about adjusting and getting better from it. It’s not like they can’t. It’s just about adjusting to the game, just like everybody in this league had to do.”
The Kings still have a host of defensive issues, even though Malone has emphasized the need for defensive improvement all season.
Even for the Thunder, a championship contender with years of playoff experience under its belt, one injury can severely disrupt a team’s perimeter defense. During the 16 games that Thabo Sefolosha missed to a calf injury, the Thunder allowed opponents to hit 39.7 percent from deep. For the rest of the season, however, they’ve allowed 34.4 percent, a mark that would rank them among the top-five teams in the league on this metric.
“He’s one of the premiere defenders in this league,” Scott Brooks said of Sefolosha Tuesday. “He can guard 1-3 and some 4’s in this league…”
Not surprisingly, since Sefolosha returned, the Thunder held the Kings and Clippers to below 30 percent from long range.
But, alas, the Kings don’t have a Sefolosha-type defender. Regardless, giving up so many 3-pointers, while simultaneously ranking 27th in 3-point shooting percentage themselves, won’t get it done. Perimeter defense will have to improve by leaps and bounds next season if coach Malone and his squad are to see a significant increase in wins.