Quantifying Keith Smart’s “play hard” motto

Marcus Thornton defends former teammate Darren Collison.

“Play hard.”

That’s been one of Keith Smart’s mottos since taking over as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Wednesday night’s 92-88 victory over the Indiana Pacers was an illustration of how good things can happen when the Kings follow Smart’s straightforward message.

But how do you measure a concept so abstract?

Despite entering the fourth quarter down 16 points, the Kings came back and won by four over one of the NBA’s most improved teams. And they did so while shooting horribly from the field.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, not since October 29, 2003 has a team shot as bad as the Kings did Wednesday (30.1 percent on the evening) and won. Despite this, they stayed aggressive offensively, paying off as a result.

FT/FGA: One of the four factors of basketball success according to sports statistician Dean Oliver.

The above chart graphs the Kings and Pacers FT/FGA ratio, an advanced statistic that measures how frequently a team gets to the free throw line and how often they make them. Led by Francisco Garcia and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings attacked the Pacers defense in the second half, which led to more opportunities at the charity stripe. In the fourth quarter alone, Garcia and Thomas accounted for more than half (10-of-15) of the Kings free throw attempts.

In addition to field goals and three-pointers, true shooting percentage also takes free throws into account when measuring shooting efficiency.

Though they started out cold from the line (0-of-2 in the 1st quarter), the Kings’ free throw shooting improved as the game progressed (12-of-15 in the 4th quarter). That kept their true shooting percentage stable throughout the contest, as demonstrated in the graph above.

For example, in the third quarter the Kings shot 28.6 percent from the field on four-of-14 shooting. But taking free throws into account (11-of-14), the Kings were actually pretty efficient in that period, posting a 52.1 true shooting percentage. Even though they shot poorly by traditional standards, the Kings remained persistent and challenged the Pacers defense, well aware they were being rewarded by officials.

“One thing with me, I’m always looking at the other team’s fouls,” said rookie point guard Isaiah Thomas following Wednesday’s win. “And we were in the bonus early. I kept telling my guys ‘be aggressive’.”

According to Basketball Reference, turnover percentage is an estimate of turnovers per 100 plays.

The chart displayed above demonstrates how the Kings ramped up their defense in the fourth quarter. They switched to a zone and played it with a focused intensity. The strategy seemed to confuse the Pacers, who coughed up nine turnovers in the final period.

“They didn’t know what to do,” said Kings guard Tyreke Evans of Indiana’s reaction to the zone. “I was looking at the point guard’s eyes and he was looking both ways like ‘Who I’m passing the ball to?’. Right then and there, I knew we had them.”

At 5-10, the Kings still have plenty of work ahead. But Wednesday night’s game, a grind-it-out, come-from-behind victory against a quality opponent, is indicative of what they can accomplish when they follow Smart’s simple saying.

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Jonathan Santiago
Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.

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