What a difference one game makes. After a devastating loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Monday evening, the Sacramento Kings were approaching a new low in an early season filled with lows. Adding injury to insult, DeMarcus Cousins went down with a strained back, and the Kings don’t win without their star big man.
But in the NBA, you have to have a short memory. The schedule keeps rolling along whether you need a break or not.
After going 0-5 to start the season without Cousins in the lineup, the Kings throttled the Milwaukee Bucks on their home floor with an offensive explosion.
“It is relieving,” guard Darren Collison told media following the game. “We have been working hard on trying to find a way to get a win. It feels like some games we are close in winning games we think we should. It definitely feels great to finally get a win and go home and regroup.”
Needing a win to avoid a 1-4 road trip, George Karl tightened his rotation to just eight players. The bench unit of Collison, Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi all responded with quality performances, including big shots down the stretch.
Karl didn’t intend to keep such a tight bench, but as the Kings get further into the season, he is beginning to see combinations that work well together on the floor. In addition, he is putting a little more faith in rookie Willie Cauley-Stein.
“I was going to go one more tonight, but Willie played well enough, I was going to go one more big,” Karl said. “We had the tempo of the game so fast, they matched small with us. I think I am learning a little bit about who plays well with who. I think I need to keep Omri in with Rudy [Gay] as much as possible. It seems that combination really complements with size there and also the ability to find a mismatch situation that is beneficial to us.”
With Cousins out, Karl used a small ball rotation similar to what he used late last season when Casspi started 15 of his final 17 games. The team responded with a frenetic pace that we have yet to see from this roster.
Sacramento set their season-high with 129 points scored on an incredible 57.1 percent shooting from the field.
“It was a combination of everything,” big man Kosta Koufos said. “Good ball movement and executing the plays correctly. It is like I have said many times before, our defense translates to our offense so we got some transition going.”
Starting for the injured Cousins, Koufos dropped in 14 points and nine rebounds as part of a balanced Kings attack. Six of eight players who logged minutes for Karl scored in double-figures, led by Rudy Gay’s 36. It was nothing short of a team effort.
The Kings return to Sacramento at 6-10, looking to climb back towards the .500 mark. While the trip should have yielded one or two more wins, a 2-3 record on an east coast swing is acceptable, even for a good NBA team.
“What I like about it is I think maybe people realize now that we had a pretty good trip,” Karl said. “We lost three games, we were in the games and could have played better in certain situations. I just thought the last two games we played some of the best basketball we played all year.”
The Charlotte game will sting for a while, but the Kings are beginning to show signs of improvement. A win in Milwaukee without Cousins may be the biggest win of the young season.
Rudy Gay came out hot from the opening tip. Without Cousins’ 28 points per game, someone had to step in fill the void. The Kings second-leading scorer on the season dropped in 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the game's first 12 minutes, setting the stage for the team’s offensive explosion.
By the half, Gay had already posted 20 points and was well on his way to a 36-point night.
“I think it has been some good, some bad,” Karl said. “It is kind of like how we have played. I think there are some moments where he is really in a good moment, but tonight he was strong the whole game. I thought the whole team stayed mentally strong the whole game. People don’t understand that playing on the road isn’t an easy challenge.”
The 29-year-old forward has had a rough go to begin the 2015-16 campaign. The birth of his second child the day before opening night left him sapped of energy. A bout with gastroenteritis cost him a game and he missed Saturday’s game in Orlando with a left shoulder strain.
In the NBA, the road can be an escape for NBA players. For a guy with so much going on off the court, a 10-day trip away can be a breath of fresh air.
Over the last two games we have begun to see the player that the Kings expected when the season opened. He scored 64 points combined against the Hornets and Bucks on 26-for-42 shooting from the field and 4-of-9 from long range.
Cousins missed his sixth game of the season, this time with an ailing lower back. That didn’t stop the 25-year-old All-Star from jawing at the Bucks from the Kings’ bench throughout the game.
Following the contest, Cousins and Milwaukee guard O.J. Mayo were seen leaving the court exchanging words. The discussion carried over into the tunnel where the players had to be separated.
According to an NBA source at the scene, the altercation did not get physical and Cousins should be in the clear, but the fact that there was even an issue to report is concerning.
Sacramento improved to 1-5 on the season without Cousins, but the fact that he put himself in an another unnecessary situation is inexcusable. He means too much to his team to miss anymore contests.