Kevin Huerter ends shooting slump in Kings’ first In-Season Tournament win

Shooting slumps are inevitable in basketball. Expecting to be a knock-down shooter every night is comparable to expecting every day to be a perfect 80 degrees with clear skies and no breeze. It’s just not feasible when each forecast and game is different.

Kevin Huerter had been in the midst of a shooting slump to start the season and also had been as clear as a breeze-less, 80-degree day about how it affected him. After the Sacramento Kings’ overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 29, he alluded to how happiness, for him, can be dictated based on performance.

Happiness relative to performance is not something every professional athlete is willing to be that forthcoming about. But his admission was a reminder that, aside from the fame, fortune and elite talent on the hardwood, he’s more relatable than fans may realize.


Malik Monk steps up, Kevin Huerter finds his groove and more: Kings weekend observations

Friday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Huerter dropped a team-high 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds, picked multiple pockets for three steals and knocked down four 3s — all of which were season highs or tied season highs. While the Kings’ 105-98 In-Season Tournament win was without a doubt Huerter’s best showing, it had been brewing for the past three games. During that stretch, he posted back-to-back-to-back season highs with 13 points, 17 points and 28, respectively.

That doesn’t happen without having the support of one’s teammates and coaches.

“It’s just a matter of keeping them uplifted and staying as positive as we can with them,” Sacramento coach Mike Brown said postgame of both Huerter and Keegan Murray, who had his first double-double of the year with a season-high 24 points and 11 boards. “But also pushing them in other areas. I pushed them both to defend. I pushed them both to rebound. I pushed them both to do the little things. And if you’re open, to shoot the ball, because I believe in it. If I believe in it and I’m telling you to shoot it, even if you’re 1-for-10, then that should give you the comfort level to want to shoot it.

“Those guys get all the credit because they’re the ones who have to figure out mentally and physically how to make that thing go in, especially when it’s not. … They’ve continued to try to find other ways to help us find ways to win ballgames even if their shot isn’t going in.”

The Kings’ two marksmen combined for 52 points, 20 rebounds, six steals, three assists and two blocks on 19-of-36 shooting and 7-of-20 from long range. It included this rocker step, one-dribble poster on Chet Holmgren by Murray.

“Winning helps solve a lot of problems,” Murray said. “Everyone on our team has me and Kevin’s back whether we’re shooting the ball great or shooting the ball bad. Nights like this really help our team camaraderie and everything that guys are going through.”

Huerter scored seven of the Sacramento’s first nine points to start the game en route to a career-high 15-point first quarter on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from deep. By halftime, Huerter had surpassed his previous season high, sitting at 19 points and trailed only Domantas Sabonis in rebounds with five.

“It’s nothing special,” he said of his performance. “It’s just the motion of our offense. It’s cutting hard, trying to play with pace, guys finding me. Just giving our offense life and giving it energy. That’s something I think I bring to this team. Just continue to move and the ball will find me.”

Huerter has certainly recalibrated from distance over the last three games, connecting on 11 of 27 3-pointers to shoot 40.7 percent since the Kings’ loss against the Houston Rockets. He made only 5 of 25 over the first five games. To be successful long term, though, Huerter knows he has to make an impact in more areas than just his 3-point shooting.

“Just trying to do it all,” he said. “Playing big minutes tonight, you’re going to need that. Whoever is on the court on that given game and that given night, doing those little things. You guys have been around all year, coach is trying to preach defensively and offensively rebounding. … Just those little things, that’s what it takes sometimes to get out of a shooting slump.”

Those little things Friday contributed to Sacramento holding an opponent to below 100 points for the first time this season. Brown was well aware of that feat.

“We shoot 42 percent from the field and we shoot 28 percent from the 3-point line,” Brown said. “That’s a loss for us last year. To be able to hold a really good offensive team to under 100 points on 44 percent from the field and 23 percent from the 3-point line is who we want to be.”

Doing so without De’Aaron Fox (ankle) and Trey Lyles (calf) is even more impressive. It remains to be seen if the Kings will have either back when they play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. Both have been active and getting in on-court work in during practice. Fox even participated in shooting drills with the rest of the team during Friday’s shootaround.

Could it have been the vibes of their first In-Season Tournament game? Who knows. But the Kings will take their fourth win of the season to bring them to .500 any way they can get it. Sacramento is tied for first with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference Group C pool. Both teams have a seven-point win differential.

That’s why Sabonis jokingly scolded Huerter for not attempting another 3 on the final play of the game. Had he done so and made it, it would have given Huerter a career high with 31 points and also broken the tie with the Timberwolves.

“Honestly, (the career high) wasn’t something I was thinking about. Just trying to get a W,” Huerter said. “It’s different, the point differential matters for this. So, that’s not something I was thinking about. End of the game, last possession, not trying to show a team up. Everybody was yelling and I couldn’t figure out why until I caught the ball, to be honest. Something I’ll have to keep in mind next time we have a tournament game.”

(Photo:  Sergio Estrada / USA Today)

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