There are a million different ways to lose a basketball game. After Sunday’s debacle in Oklahoma City, the Sacramento Kings have reached way number 15 for the 2015-16 season.
This one has to hurt. Sacramento came out of halftime and laid a giant third quarter egg, falling behind by as many as 17 after trailing by just three at the break. All seemed lost and then it wasn’t.
The Kings fell behind by 13 a minute into the fourth and then rattled off an 8-to-1 run to climb right back into the game. Dion Waiters responded with a 3-ball to push the Thunder lead back to nine at the 9:02 mark.
Teams exchanged baskets before the Kings exploded for a 14-0, taking a 90-84 with just under three minutes remaining.
Just when you thought the Kings might turn things around and shock the Thunder, things fell apart once again. A missed dunk, two missed free throw, a turnover and a wild airball left the Kings walking off the floor with a disappointing 98-95 loss in Oklahoma City.
This is what happens to unestablished teams. They don’t find ways to win, they find ways to lose and it’s clearly wearing thin on a franchise in desperate need of a turnaround season.
There are plenty of fingers that could be pointed for the latest loss, but there is also a major positive to take away.
Sacramento came into Sunday allowing an NBA-worst 109.3 points per game. But with a solid game plan in place, the Kings held OKC to just 98 points on 40.7 percent shooting from the field and 27.3 percent from behind the arc.
The numbers are good, but more importantly, they didn’t look like some aberration. The general idea was to restrict the flow of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The duo came in averaging more than 56 combined points per game. The Kings held them to just 39 and they did so by limiting the tandems chances.
“Once we got activity I thought we made some really good reads on crowding and walling in Westbrook and Durant’s touches,” George Karl said. “Fortunately they weren’t shooting the ball very well from their perimeter. It was a really good defensive game.”
Durant and Westbrook both shot 7-for-13 from the field. Normally you wouldn’t be overjoyed allowing two players to shoot 53.8 percent on the night, but these aren’t your ordinary players. Durant has four of the last six NBA scoring titles and Westbrook took home the honor last season after posting 28.1 points per game.
"That's something we had to work on, something mentally we knew we had to get better on to get wins,” Rudy Gay said. “Just wish we could have got this win. It would have been satisfying. We played great defense on those guys."
A bad shooting night by either player could have been attributed to many different issues. But this wasn’t a bad shooting night. The Kings actually limited the opportunities of two of the league’s best scorers and even forced Durant into 10 turnovers.
"We're not trying to come in here and pat ourselves on the back,” Cousins said. “An "L" is an "L". We're a better team than what we've been showing, especially on this road trip, and it starts with me.”
Cousins is right, a loss is a loss. But at least we aren’t talking about an atrocious defensive effort once again. There was a game plan to take away the Thunder’s primary scoring options and force someone else to beat them.
Outside of the Durant and Westbrook, the nine other Thunder players combined to shoot 21-of-60 (35 percent) from the field.
Marco Belinelli has been hit and miss all season long, but the last four games, his numbers are horrible. Over that stretch, Belinelli was averaging 4.5 points and had hit just 1-of-13 from long range.
The 29-year-old Italian struggled again from 3-point land on Sunday night, shooting 1-of-6 from behind the arc, including a rushed miss as time expired. But on the plus side, Belinelli was aggressive and still managed to score 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the field.
With Omri Casspi entering the starting lineup in place of the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl needs all hands on deck. Belinelli is a proven NBA scorer that can open the floor for others.
It’s hard to imagine him hitting 2-for-19 from downtown over a five-game stretch, but he has to continue to find ways to help his team while the shots aren’t falling.
Like Belinelli, Cousins is in a funk. In Mexico City on Thursday, Cousins appeared to have no lift in his legs at all. Saturday against the Rockets, he played defense with his hands instead of his feet, leading to an early exit from the game due to foul trouble. Again, the issue appeared to be physical.
“There is nothing that I am aware of other than in 82 games it is difficult to be a great player every night,” Karl said when asked if Cousins was still injured. “It just doesn’t happen all the time. Matchups sometimes are poor... When you are the first priority of a scouting report, it is sometimes tough to be great.”
On Sunday against the Thunder, Cousins was clearly the focus of the Thunder’s defensive scheme. He shot just 5-for-20 from the field while battling with the brutish Steven Adams and countless double-teams.
When he is on, Cousins has dominated players like Adams this season by dragging them outside with his perimeter shot. Once they step out to slow his jumper, he uses his quickness and agility to take them off the dribble.
Since returning from injury, Cousins is just 3-of-19 from long range. Without a perimeter arsenal, Cousins tried to force shots in the paint against one of the strongest men in the NBA.
"I've never been on a stretch like this, but stay positive, stay together,” Cousins said. “Get in the gym and just try to figure out whatever it is going on. I know it's a mental thing right now. It's hard to get that rhythm when you're not seeing that ball go through the basket at the rate you're used to. Just got to stay positive. That's all I can do."
As for it being a mental thing, Cousins, a 79 percent free throw shooter on the season, went just 3-of-9 on Sunday. With the Kings leading by one point with 43.9 seconds remaining, Cousins bricked two crucial shots from the line and Durant responded 20 seconds later with the go ahead jumper and the Kings never scored again.
Cousins is reluctant to point to injury as the cause of his woes, but it’s clear he doesn’t have his legs under him at this point. Hopefully a short home stand will be just what the doctor ordered to cure both the body and soul of one of the game’s most dominant players.
This was one of the best defensive games the Kings played all season. You will never confuse this group with the 2003-04 championship Detroit Pistons, but they have the pieces on the roster to compete on the defensive end under the right scheme.
For one night, they played solid team defense and limited a very good offensive Thunder team. Hopefully they can build on this performance.