SACRAMENTO -- DeMarcus Cousins made his triumphant return to the floor on Monday night, and the Kings defeated the Mavs 112-98.
The 25-year-old big man has missed eight of the Kings 19 games on the season with a series of issues and his presence is a welcomed sight for all of those involved.
“There was no doubt in my mind (I) was playing today,” Cousins said. “I really wanted to come back earlier, but Pete (Youngman) and them, they do what they do.”
The Kings medical staff has had no option but to play it safe with Cousins health. If an early season Achilles scare isn’t bad enough, the last thing you want for your franchise cornerstone is the beginning of lower back issues.
“I hate it,” Cousins said of sitting out. “Having to sit and watch my teammates go to battle without me. When you know you could be in helping them, putting your impact on the game, it’s a terrible feeling to be sitting out.”
Sacramento is just 1-7 in games that Cousins misses due to injury or suspension. On the flip side, they are 6-5 in games that he plays in and he exited early in tow of those five losses.
“It’s tough, especially when it comes to having a rhythm,” Cousins said of missing games sporadically throughout the early season. “I felt like I was in a good rhythm early on, and then I hit another stumble, whatever you want to call it. This is some adversity that I have to get through. I’m just trying to stay positive and pushing through it. That’s all I can do.”
While the shooting numbers weren’t great, the All-Star center finished with 31 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Cousins shot just 10-of-24 from the field and 1-of-8 from behind the arc, but he hit all 10 of his free throw attempts,
“Cousins is super skilled, you know, he’s got basketball skills all over the place,” George Karl said. “Tonight I thought it was one of his better passing games. He was aware, very aware. He didn’t make the three ball, but the spacing of our court is helpful when he’s in the game in a lot of ways, plus you have an inside game in the second half (that) they didn’t have much of an answer for him.”
Despite not playing for a week, Cousins was able to go 37 minutes for Karl. Maybe more impressive was the fact that he played all but the final 1:10 of the fourth quarter, leading the Kings charge with 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting.
“He’s an All-Star presence on the floor,” Darren Collison said. “He just causes so much attention, he makes it easier on everybody.”
The Mavericks tried to go small against the Kings down the stretch, turning to five small-ball players in an attempt to climb back in the game. Sacramento responded by feeding Cousins in the post on almost every possession.
“Any time you get Cuz a paint touch, it’s going to be a foul or a bucket,” Collison said. “We understood that, we recognized that and I though we did a good job of looking for him.”
Sacramento is a completely different team with Cousins on the floor. Hopefully he can stay healthy for a longer stretch this time.
The Kings have made a living in the third quarter this season and Monday night was no different. After trailing the Mavericks 58-54 going to the break, Karl and his staff made some halftime adjustments that turned the game around in the second half.
Sacramento showed a defensive tenacity in the third that we have seldom seen from this team. They held the Mavericks to just 13 points on 22.7 percent shooting from the field in the 12 minutes after the half. Dallas turned the ball over seven times in the period and missed all nine of their 3-point attempts.
The Kings struggled in the third as well, shooting a lowly 25 percent from the field, but they added 11 points at the stripe and only turned the ball over once in the period.
Rajon Rondo is not a good free throw shooter. The 10-year NBA veteran is a career 60.4 percent shooter from the stripe, but over his last two seasons that number has taken a major dip. Between stops in Boston and Dallas last season, the four-time All-Star shot just 39.7 percent from the line. Coming into Monday night’s game against the Mavs, he was shooting just 37.5 percent this season.
Rarely do you see a lead guard struggle with one of the game’s basics in this way. With Rondo being the Kings’ primary ball handler on most possessions, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle turned to an old trick to take his former player out of the game.
Hack-a-Rondo is likely to catch on. That is until the savvy point guard proves he can knock down the freebies.
“Rick’s a matchup coach in a lot of ways, it was interesting what was going on out there in a lot of ways,” Karl said. “I think (Chandler) Parsons is only shooting 40 percent or something like that. We were talking should we foul him and really make this a four hour game.”
Dallas players grabbed Rondo repeatedly to force the talented guard to the line. He hit just 2-of-6 in the first half and followed that up with 2-for-4 in the third quarter.
Knowing the barrage of fouls were coming, Karl sat Rondo until the 4:24 mark of the fourth. Once he entered the game, the Maverick’s resumed their approach, until Rondo hit 3-of-4 from the stripe and they abandoned the strategy.
“I was happy for Rajon, he made the free throws,” Karl said. “He made enough that it became a bad strategy.”
Rondo finished the night 7-of-14 from the line. You could see the tension building on veterans face everytime he went to the stripe. Clearly he hates being a weak link, but you can’t fault an opposing coach for turning to a gimmick. Until Rondo proves he can knock down a free throw on a consistent basis, it’s likely he will see a lot more night’s like this.
After a brutal 1-7 start to the season, the Kings are 6-5 over their last 11 games. Three of those losses are with Cousins on the sidelines and he left early in the overtime loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
At 7-12 on the season, the Kings are in 12th place in the Western Conference, but it’s not nearly as bad at it seems. Sacramento is just 1.5 games out of the eighth spot and trail the seventh place team in the west by two games. If they can keep Cousins healthy, this season could get interesting very quickly.