The season is still young, but even at this point one thing is clear: These aren’t the Kings you think they are.

Sacramento is off to a blistering start to the 2014-15 season, sitting at 5-2 after seven games. Including tonight’s tilt against the Mavericks, every single game the Kings have played up to this point has been against a Western Conference opponent. (At this juncture, the Mavs have played two Eastern Conference foes.)

Not much was expected of this Sacramento bunch heading into the season, but the Kings have shown through seven games that they’re committed to the formula: Play through DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, and play hard defense. It will be up to the Mavs to try corralling in Cousins in Gay. That’s the secret to beating this team. Of course, as five West teams can attest to, that much is easier said than done.

After losing the opener to this four-game homestand, the entire Dallas roster spoke on the need to play with more effort and energy coming out of the gates. That’s exactly what it’s going to take to beat this upstart Kings squad. My guess is we’ll be seeing a focused Mavs team tonight, and that could lead to some really, really good basketball.

Mavs Offense Kings Defense
Points/100 poss. 112.0 (1) 100.0 (8)
eFG% 52.9 (5) 46.6 (6)
TOV% 11.9 (3) 13.8 (22)
Off/Def Reb% 25.8 (T-15) 78.1 (4)
FT/FGA .227 (26) .315 (20)

The Kings can beat you with defense. They’ve surrendered 100+ points in four games this season, but one of them was a double-header thriller on the road against the Phoenix Suns, a contest which Sacramento won.

One of the keys to any gritty defense is shutting a possession down as soon as a shot misses. The Kings rebound by volume better than all but three teams in the NBA through seven games, meaning Cousins and the rest of the big men — including Reggie Evans, who averages 6.0 rebounds in less than 15 minutes per game — crash the glass with authority. The Mavs will need to make their shots count, because they might not be getting many second chances against such a stout rebounding opponent.

Monta Ellis was the secret to that success last season, averaging higher than 20 points per game against the Kings on 49.2 percent shooting. If Ellis and the other perimeter players can get going downhill toward the rim, they could very well get the dangerous Cousins in foul trouble. The big man averages 4.9 fouls per game, and that’s in part limited his playing time to just 30.4 minutes a night.

In fact, at the rim is really the only place Sacramento has shown its mortality this season. The Kings allow opponents to shoot 60.7 percent from less than five feet, per, and less than 37.1 percent from every other spot on the floor. That includes 22.8 percent on threes from longer than 25 feet. Those are crazy defensive numbers, but while they might not be sustainable across an entire season, it’s important to find good, quality shots, else Dallas runs the risk of having a difficult offensive night.

This is the case of an unstoppable force colliding with an immovable object. Dallas is the only team in the league which shoots 50 percent from 15-19 feet and shoots a second-best 52.3 percent from 10-14 feet. The most important contributor to that stat is Dirk Nowitzki, who needs just 17 points to pass Hakeem Olajuwon for ninth-place on the all-time scoring list. He hasn’t scored fewer than 17 in a game all season, so the odds are pretty high that we’re going to witness history tonight. There’s obviously more to the game than just watching Dirk surpass another legend, however. We all know the Mavs can convert against the rim, but tonight we’ll see just how far they can push this hot-starting Kings defense. It should be a great battle.

Mavs Defense Kings Offense
Points/100 poss. 108.2 (26) 103.3 (14)
eFG% 54.0 (29) 46.4 (26)
TOV% 18.6 (6) 16.5 (21)
Off/Def Reb% 69.5 (30) 29.0 (4)
FT/FGA .241 (3) .470 (1)

The Kings’ rebounding prowess continues on the opposite end of the floor, where they’re again the fourth-best rebounding team by volume on offense. Dallas ranks 30th in opponent offensive rebounding rate, but that number has trended upward in three consecutive games. The Mavs are beginning to solve that problem, but this will still be a huge test.

This will also be the second consecutive contest in which the Mavs’ opponent will look to make a living at the free throw line. The Kings average nearly one free throw attempt for every two shots they attempt, a ridiculously high rate. Miami also attempts a ton of free throws, but Dallas was able to limit the Heat to just 20 attempts, their second-lowest number of the season. The Kings do not have a particularly high effective field goal percentage, which means if they aren’t hitting free throws, they’re going to have a difficult time scoring points. Tyson Chandler, Brandan Wright, and Greg Smith must remain completely vertical against Cousins. In addition, while the Mavs make a living off playing with active hands, it will be imperative not to commit cheap fouls on Rudy Gay as he drives the lane, sending him to the line.

That isn’t to say Dallas shouldn’t play super-active on defense tonight. The Kings are a bottom-third team in terms of turnover rate, and the Mavs are No. 6 in the league in turnovers forced per possession. They say the best offense is a good defense, and Dallas might have to prove that tonight against the Kings. You might not beat them in the halfcourt, but the Mavs’ defense, built on calculated risk-taking, could turn out to be the difference in the game. The Mavs are one of the most dangerous teams in the open floor, with Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons leading the charge. If Dallas can secure 15-20 fast break points, Sacramento is going to have a hard time keeping up.

No matter which way you slice it, tonight’s game is shaping up to be a heck of a battle. The Kings are somewhat of a “throwback” team, playing heavily through their center and one scoring perimeter player. Meanwhile, Dallas essentially plays through all five guys on offense, throwing all sorts of unorthodox looks at its opponents. The young Kings have all sorts of confidence, and the Mavericks are going to be playing with some fire tonight. This is going to be an awesome matchup.

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