The Sacramento Kings are becoming predictably unpredictable. On Monday night in new Orleans, Sacramento led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter only to give it all away down the stretch and lose by a final of 115-112.
“Well the 17-point lead came early in the third, and for some reason we just slowed down,” George Karl told reporters following the game. “I thought we had the zip, we had the enthusiasm. We were playing fast. We made some shots and got up. It was like a flood coming our way.”
What changed? That’s a very good question. First and foremost, the Kings stopped valuing the ball. After turning the ball over 10 times in the first half, the Kings gave it away 14 times in the second half, evenly dispersing the gaffs between the third and fourth quarters. You can’t win in the NBA giving the ball away 24 times.
The main culprit in the second half was DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings’ star center lost the ball five times after the intermission after going the entire first half without mishandling the ball once.
Cousins led the Kings in both scoring with 40 points and rebounding with 16, but he struggled to finish during crunch time and his inability to hang onto the ball hurt the team.
“It’s been killing us all year,” Cousins said of the turnovers. “It’s going to continue to be a problem if we don’t fix it.”
The big fella wasn't the only one to struggle hanging onto the ball. Veteran point guards Darren Collison and Rajon Rondo let the ball slip through their fingers plenty of times as well.
Collison gave up the rock six times, including a fumble with 2.9 seconds remaining in the game with the Kings trailing by three. The last mistake ended the game.
Rondo has been turnover prone all season long, but he also leads the NBA in assists. As the primary ball handler for the Kings you expect a certain amount of errors, but Rondo looked to make the difficult pass all night long instead of settling for something safer.
His final turnover came with the Kings leading by two with just under two minutes remaining in the fourth. Dante Cunningham tracked Rondo down from behind and took the ball away, leading to a Pelicans 3-pointer and New Orleans’ first lead since the mid-second quarter. They never trailed again.
“We were holding it off, but we were turning the ball over,” Karl said. “We were playing against shot clock, they were the running team, we weren’t the running team. We didn’t have a lot of continuity, and defensively, we were just giving up way too many layups.”
Rudy Gay added four turnovers as the Cousins, Collison, Rondo and Gay combined for 20 of the team’s 24 mistakes.
“Playing defense; taking smart shots, good shots; sharing the ball,” Cousins said of what went wrong. “That’s what got us into the lead, and that’s what we got away from.”
The end result was another loss for the Kings. They are now 1-6 over their last seven and they have dropped to a season-high 12-games under .500. Any talk of a late playoff run was all but been silenced after their latest loss.
Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein has seen a major dip in minutes of late. Has he hit the rookie wall? Probably not.
Somehow the 7-footer out of Kentucky has worked himself out of George Karl’s rotation, despite being one of the best defenders on the team. Over his last 10 games, Cauley-Stein has averaged just 15.7 minutes per night and over his last three games he’s played just 24 total minutes.
“I just thought Willie was tricked the last time we played them…I thought we played well small,” Karl said following the loss to the Pelicans where Cauley-Stein saw less than six minutes of court time. “It was just more the personality of the game.”
The last time the Kings played the Pelicans, forward Ryan Anderson went crazy, scoring 36 points in 41 minutes. But Cauley-Stein played just 15 minutes in that contest, so he wasn’t the only one to struggle with the stretch four.
This is the time of year when teams that are going to miss the playoffs turn to their young players to give them an extended look and help them build towards the coming seasons. At some point you would expect Cauley-Stein to see a major bump in both minutes and opportunities and the Kings prepare for another long offseason.