Get an inside look at how James Johnson’s late-game intensity sparked a Kings victory. Plus, find out how T-Rob made an immediate impact in his preseason debut.
In its preseason opener, Sacramento swatted seven Phoenix shots – led by three from forward James Johnson – and held the Suns to just 41.4 percent shooting from the field.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” says point guard Isaiah Thomas. “(During training camp) in Colorado, (Head Coach Keith Smart) was just emphasizing defense – he wasn’t worried about offense. He even told us before the game, ‘I don’t really care what you do on the offensive end – this is a defensive game and we’re going to win it by playing defense.’”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Johnson helped fuel a key fourth quarter run with his defensive instincts and hustle, quickly breaking open a back-and-forth battle. In only five minutes of fourth-quarter action, No. 52 displayed his multifaceted skill set, stuffing the box score with two points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocks, while contesting numerous shots and fighting for position to snatch offensive boards.
The game’s major turning point came when Johnson picked off an errant pass and found an open Jimmer Fredette for a wide-open triple, which put the Kings ahead by 15 points.
“James is a guy who works, works, works, and it becomes contagious,” says Thomas. “Once you see guys wiling to do whatever it takes to (win), you feel like you need to do it. That guy has a motor that doesn’t turn off, and he’s going to help us a lot this year.”
Following an impressive training camp, Smart believes the Wake Forest product is on the verge of becoming an NBA All-Defensive Team member.
“I think he can get in that group because he likes to play defense already,” says the Kings leader. “I think he has that potential to be a guy who you can have not only guard some of the best (shooting guards) and (small forwards), but also be in the position to go and help.
“One thing he does – this is football terminology – is track the ball. When the ball-carrier has the ball, you see everyone flooding to the ball, and he does that very well, and that’s why he comes up with so many blocked shots from a small forward position.”
While Johnson is pleased with his recent play and the strides Sacramento has made on both ends of the court in recent weeks, he emphasizes the team’s recipe for developing into a contender centers on getting consistent stops.
“We’ve just got to continue buying in,” he said following the hard-fought win. “We have a long ways to go – a preseason game doesn’t determine that we’re a Playoff team. We’ve got to use all these preseason games to get to that Playoff-level of defense every night.”
More than just in the opening exhibition contest, veteran Chuck Hayes has noticed a significant change in the team’s energy level and communication during practices.
“We’ve been really focusing on and emphasizing defense all camp,” says Hayes. “What defense really is is effort and communication. That’s what we did last night and that’s what we’re going to need to do.“
“On the defensive end, we helped each other a lot,” affirms DeMarcus Cousins. “I feel like it’s a major improvement from last year, so I’m happy.”
- Making his NBA preseason debut, rookie Thomas Robinson also shined defensively, recording eight rebounds, two steals and one block to go along with 12 points.
“I thought I played with a lot of energy on the defensive end, and I think it was just my main focus – to try to go out there and be a good defender,” said No. 0 postgame. “Mainly, my whole focus is trying to be a defensive stopper.”
Smart believes the Kansas product changed the tempo with his athleticism and unremitting drive as soon as he checked-in late in the first quarter.
“(Robinson) got in with a group and elevated that group so much (with) just his energy, effort and willingness to learn,” says Smart. “I wasn’t surprised with what we saw from him because we saw it all through training camp.”
“(He’s) just a beast,” adds Thomas. “He’s got a talent you can’t teach, he has a motor that doesn’t turn off and you need guys like that to win ball games.”
- A unique opportunity to match up with as many as four opposing point guards on a regular basis in practice has given Thomas a leg-up on defending various types of NBA players.
Wednesday, No. 22 forced the Suns’ Goran Dragic into three turnovers in 15 minutes.
“It helps me a lot (with) different guards – big, small, fast, quick, whatever it may be,” says the UW product. “Especially with Aaron (Brooks) here – he’s a quick guard like me, so it helps me with the quicker guards, and with Tyreke (Evans) and John (Salmons), it helps me with the bigger guards.”
- The defensive-minded Kings host their second preseason game on Monday at 7 p.m. against the Portland Trail Blazers. To get tix, Click Here.