Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein, center, goes to the basket between Denver Nuggets’ Danilo Gallinari, left, and Nikola Jokic, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. The Kings won 116-100. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
By Morris Phillips
SACRAMENTO–And the Kings response to the near universal condemnation of the trade of their controversial star DeMarcus Cousins, with the deal frequently termed as being lopsided, even moronic?
No, it wasn’t just the confiscation of a few, mildly negative signs that found their way into Golden 1 Center on Thursday night. And it wasn’t a last minute trade deadline sell off of Darren Collison or Ben McLemore.
Instead just minutes after Boogie and the Pelicans were blown out at home in their Big Easy debut, the Kings put on a display featuring youth, cohesion, balance and very little bantering with the referees in defensive transition. The resulting 116-100 win over the Nuggets and former Kings’ coach Mike Malone was an eye-opener to say the least, and it brought the Kings within a half game of the coveted eighth spot in the West.
So, what’s that about Operation Tank Job? Well on Thursday night, Tank Job was pre-empted by the new era of Sacramento basketball as authored by Vlade and Vivek.
“We don’t have a superstar presence, so we need everybody to step up and kind of fulfill their role. Everybody needs to chip in one way or another and I thought we did a good job of that,” said Collison, one of six Kings to score in double figures, and one of eight to score at least eight points.
More encouraging was the fact that those guys the Kings need to be most energized by the opportunities afforded them in Cousins’ absence were. Cousins’ replacement in the middle, second-year man Willie Cauley-Stein responded with a career-best 29 points, 10 rebounds. Rookie Buddy Hield in his Sacramento debut had 16 points off the bench. And Tyreke Evans made the most of his return to the Kings with 15 points.
And what of the Kings’ Kentucky tandem down low? Cauley-Stein and 20-year old Skal Labissiere combined for 41 of the Kings’ 71 points off the bench, a nice counter to the 65 points posted by Davis and Cousins in New Orleans. Labissiere, a skinny guy with a world of promise, had 14 DNP-CD’s in January, and six more this month. But on Thursday, Labissiere was a double-digits scorer at the NBA level for the first time, and needed just 14 minutes, and seven shots to get there.
Afterwards, Labissiere appeared to be seven feet tall, even taller than the 6’11” that he’s listed as. Coach Dave Joerger, a teacher by trade, looked as if he had just completed an engaging, college lecture. And Cauley-Stein was unapologetically giddy, genuinely surprised by what he had just accomplished.
“I didn’t come in here to score damn near 30. Just come in here, just play hard, shoot the shots I get and play to the best of my ability and God willing, it happened tonight,” Cauley-Stein said.
“Willie just had a fantastic game, and his confidence was sky high–made a couple of jumpers too,” Joerger said.
With 24 games remaining, all of a sudden the Kings are intriguing, with home games against beatable Minnesota, Charlotte and Brooklyn up next. For now, all of the competing scenarios that could keep the Kings from maximizing their two first-round draft picks in June are in the background, and the focus is on the floor.
For Sacramento fans, it’s not cowbells just yet, but it’s certainly not cobwebs either. For the Kings, an A+ on Thursday night for freshness and originality.