Find out how three reserves have earned increased minutes in late-game situations. Plus, Brooks dishes on playing despite a chipped front tooth.
In the final moments of a tight game, Kings Head Coach Keith Smart has frequently utilized a lineup including a trio of reserves – Marcus Thornton, Aaron Brooks and Chuck Hayes – as his closers.
“I think I’ve been comfortable with it because it has been really productive,” says Smart, praising his players’ defensive balance and spacing. “I think with (that) group on the floor, when Chuck is in there with (DeMarcus Cousins), you have a guy with big-time knowhow down the stretch, and ‘Cuz’ can shoot the ball.
“Having Aaron and Marcus on the floor at the same time (is) good because both of them play from the three-point line,” adds the Kings leader. “(Each) gives you that threat from deep and, if a game is close, he has that ability to make shots and make the (opposing) team give you a little bit more space on the floor.”
The lineup has repeatedly come through with crucial performances, including Nov. 3, when Sacramento erased a 14-point deficit against Indiana to force two overtimes. Hayes, Thornton and Brooks played all but a handful seconds of the contest’s final 22 minutes.
“I think it’s a good lineup (because) everyone knows his role, we share the ball and we’re pulling for another on each play,” explains Thornton. “’A.B.’ is a proven player in late-time situations from his days in Houston making big shots and Chuck is our best defender on the team, especially on the low block, so I feel good on both ends.”
In terms of plus-minus, three of the top five Kings units that have played at least four minutes together this season feature the reserve triad.
“That second unit, we read the game and we have to beat out (the opposing) bench and we have to give our starters some rest,” says Hayes. “We do such a good job of changing the tempo and changing the momentum into our favor, sometimes Coach rides with us for a long time … with that lineup, we’ve played good enough to win (every game).”
Against the Pacers, Thornton twice tied the score on clutch three-pointers – one at the end of regulation and another with 26.4 seconds left in the first overtime, after Hayes found the shooting guard open in the corner.
“I do feel confident when the play is called for me to go out there and make the play,” says No. 23. “(My mentality is) just make the best possible play for the team, whether it’s shooting, making the pass or getting the big rebound – trying to do whatever it takes to win the game in that moment.”
On Wednesday, the Louisiana State product once again connected on a baseline triple to put Sacramento ahead by five against Detroit with just over one minute left on the clock.
“Marcus has the tendency to hit big shots, so I’ve seen (now and) when I’ve played against him,” says Hayes. “Between him and Aaron, they can get off a good shot.”
In Sacramento’s home opener against Golden State Monday – in which Thornton, Brooks and Hayes were on the court for the majority of the fourth quarter – No. 3 delivered the heroics. Brooks notched nine points in the fourth quarter, slicing through the lane to hit a pair of floaters in the final minutes.
“I’m very confident (in crunchtime) – I think throughout my career, I’ve been pretty good at it,” says Brooks, adding he’s willing to either take the final shot or make a play for one of his teammates.
Hayes, who also played alongside Brooks in Houston, is content with the point guard having the ball in his hands after witnessing him take over countless games.
“Let me tell you, I am so comfortable with Aaron taking those shots in the fourth quarter with under two or three minutes,” says the big man. “He can get his shot off just as well as Marcus and he can handle the ball just as well as Tyreke (Evans). The guy’s clutch.”
Smart explains the Oregon product has embraced his role as a veteran leader who typically checks-in to deliver a boost late in the first quarter and then finishes games due to his experience.
“The game in Indiana really showed me a lot about him … I saw the way he and Chuck were managing defending the pick-and-roll, communicating in a tough, tight situation of a game, and that just showed that he has a very good awareness late in games (of) what needs to be done and how to do it,” says Smart. “The guy’s a big shot-maker late in the game and his defensive awareness heightens at that time.”
Smart notes the second unit’s ability to get stops has been as integral to the lineup’s success as the guards’ shooting prowess.
The Kings leader notes while Thornton has been renowned by his peers for scoring, the coaching staff has been pleased with his development as a defender.
“I’m asking for more – you have to give us more than the effort you’ve had over your career, and I think he’s done it,” says Smart. “He was a top guy (on Monday) defensively, the way he worked, so everything is moving in a positive direction for him on both sides of the ball.”
In the fourth quarter, the head coach mainly abides by his defensive grade sheets – topped by Hayes – in order to decide which players will remain on the floor to close out the game.
“(Defense) doesn’t just mean guarding your individual person one-on-one – it means knowing when you have to make a decision to (make a) switch that hasn’t been called, knowing when you have to make a decision to leave your man for help of something else,” explains Smart, noting instances where Hayes has made game-changing plays. “Chuck is so aware of all those things – when it comes down to guarding someone, he’s a great post defender and communicator.”
Hayes explains his key to repeatedly shutting down All-Stars such as David West and David Lee is crowding them and paying close attention to frequent adjustments by opposing coaches.
“I make it so hard for them to score in the post, they set a lot of pick-and-rolls with my man so I can come off their body and give them space,” he says. “If I realize the pick-and-roll is just a fake or a bluff, then I won’t help on the pick-and-roll. I’ll give my point guard a little bit of help, but as soon as they kick it to (my man), I’m taking away his space.”
For Cousins, Hayes has served as an encyclopedic source of valuable information on rival big men.
“When I need to know about a matchup or when I need advice on a player, that’s who I go to – Chuck,” says Cousins. “(Monday) was my first time ever playing Andrew Bogut. Chuck told me to do this and that, what (Bogut) likes to do on this or that block. He told me he shoots his hooks with his left hand, but he goes to the free throw line and shoots with his right hand.”
As one of the leaders on the youthful Kings, Hayes is oftentimes approached by teammates for advice. The Kentucky product recalls recently telling rookie Thomas Robinson to listen to play calls for key words such as “Post Four” or “Punch Four” to understand when his counterpart will attack the paint.
“My job on the defensive end in the fourth quarter is to be that linebacker or that free safety to tell guys what to expect, where to go, whose help is whose,” says No. 42.
Coach Smart believes his closers have found success in late-game situations because they’ve embraced the challenge on both ends.
“(Hall of Fame Coach and current TV analyst) Hubie Brown talked about the pressure of the moment,” says Smart. “Those coaches and those players who can thrive in the pressure of the moment, those are the ones that succeed.”
– Late in the fourth quarter of Sacramento’s season opener in Chicago, Brooks forced a turnover and dove for the loose ball, hitting his face on the hardwood and chipping one of his front teeth.
The guard reveals he never considered heading to the locker room, instead staying in the game and later hitting a key lay-up.
“I had to go out there and play,” he says matter-of-factly.
On Tuesday, Brooks finally had the broken tooth fixed by a Sacramento-area dentist – three games after the painful incident.
Asked about the procedure, a stoic Brooks chuckled when he summed it up simply.
“It went well.”
What Kings lineup do you want to see on-court in the final minutes of a close game?