The Kings’ struggles from the free-throw line continues to defy their uncharacteristic free fall.
Sacramento’s 126-121 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night at Golden 1 Center was the Kings’ fourth consecutive defeat and marked the second straight game the team shot below 60 percent from the free throw line.
Despite the Pacers missing several key players, including former King Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana never backed down, carrying a double-digit lead into the half.
A scoring barrage by Kevin Huerter to open the third quarter offered the first glimmer of hope that Sacramento would regain its footing, with the sharpshooting guard scoring the team’s first 10 points of the second half in just over two minutes to cut Indiana’s lead to five points.
While the Kings were able to tread water and stay within striking distance, the Pacers pulled away down the stretch in large part due to Sacramento’s abysmal 10-for-20 shooting from the free-throw line in the second half.
With 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, Pacers guard Benedict Mathurin drilled a 27-foot step-back 3-pointer to push Indiana’s lead to 122-106, seemingly delivering the knockout punch to put the Kings away for good.
However, Sacramento nearly pulled off the impossible, reeling off a 15-2 run over the next 108 seconds, securing possession down 124-121 with 11.1 seconds remaining.
Coming out of a timeout with five seconds left in the fourth quarter, Indiana opted to foul Malik Monk — an 85 percent free throw shooter this season — sending the Kings guard to the line for the clutch free throws that have doomed the team as of late.
Monk missed the first attempt, forcing him to deliberately miss the second before Pacers big man Jalen Smith secured a defensive rebound that sealed the Kings’ fate in yet another heartbreaking loss.
In yet another game that went down to the wire with the Kings coming up just short, the 14 points Sacramento left at the free-throw line loomed large as a young and undermanned Pacers squad escaped Golden 1 Center with a victory.
After the game, coach Mike Brown addressed the Kings’ recent woes from the charity stripe, detailing a deliberate uptick in free-throw attempts during practice and shootaround that didn’t deliver its intended outcome.
“It’s two games in a row we shoot 50 percent from the free-throw line,” Brown told reporters. “I’m not sure what it is. Today, we shot more free throws in shootaround than we ever have in a shootaround since I’ve been here.
“Yesterday, we shot more free throws in a practice than we ever have since I’ve been here. We’ve upped the number and even to a point where if they don’t get X in a row, there’s a time limit. They just got to just sit there and shoot two at a time and rotate.”
“So, hopefully sooner than later, each man will figure it out while we continue as a team to shoot a lot of free throws. Each man will look in the mirror and kind of lock in and try to figure out what he can do to be better at the free-throw line.
“Having two games in the fifties and the two games are basically one-possession games … it’s tough to swallow.”
Sharpshooting sophomore Keegan Murray also weighed in on Sacramento’s struggles from the line, citing the team’s need to continue grinding towards a resolution he believes they can attain based on their track records as free-throw shooters.
“I mean, we’re shooting a lot of free throws in practice. Obviously, I feel like last year was a lot better. We just have to keep working on it; at the end of the day, we’re all professionals. We’ve all shot good from the free-throw line before, so just getting over that hump, and I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Thursday’s loss had a significant impact on the Western Conference playoff picture, with Sacramento sliding to the No. 7 seed, meaning the Kings would be in the Play-In Tournament if the season were to end today.
Among the silver linings of Sacramento’s current skid is Huerter rediscovering his rhythm.
After scoring double-digits just once over his previous 10 appearances, Huerter has recorded double-figures in three consecutive games, including a career-high 31 points against the Pacers on Thursday night.
Domantas Sabonis finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Thursday’s loss, recording his third consecutive triple-double, joining Oscar Robertson and Maurice Stokes as the only players in franchise history to accomplish that feat.
Despite the impressive outings for Huerter and Sabonis, the lack of execution from the free-throw line remains the biggest takeaway as the Kings aim to pull themselves out of a tailspin when they face the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night at Golden 1 Center.