The Keith Smart era got off to a good start Thursday as the Kings came back from a 21 point deficit to complete a great comeback against the Bucks despite the best efforts of Brandon Jennings (31 points, 7 assists, 5 steals) and Drew Gooden (18 points, 9 rebounds). Jennings hit some truly ridiculous shots all night, but luckily missed a three at the end that would have sent the game into overtime.
The Kings were led by their "Big 3" of Tyreke Evans (26 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists), Marcus Thornton (27 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (19 points, 15 rebounds). The Kings managed to win despite shooting only 40.7% to Milwaukee's 51.3% thanks to a huge rebounding advantage (55-31) and going 25-30 from the free throw line.
Chuck Hayes left the game after playing only 9 minutes due to a separated shoulder. No official word has been released on the severity yet.
The comeback came in bits and pieces. The Kings started off the 3rd quarter well, continuously cutting the lead to about 10 or so only to see it slip away. But they kept at it, and late in the 4th quarter finally managed to string a few good stops in a row (Jason Thompson was HUGE on defense in those final minutes) and essentially won the game at the free throw line, with Tyreke Evans hitting the ones to take the lead and the ones that sealed it.
The biggest difference between tonight and the last few was the effort the team showed all night. The team struggled mightily with its shot and decision making all night, sometimes trying too hard to make a certain pass, or teammates not being aware of their surroundings, and it allowed the Bucks to get out to the early lead, especially in a brutal 2nd quarter where the Kings only scored 12 points.
It doesn't show in the box score, but the Kings were moving the ball a lot better. They only had 16 assists, but they also missed a lot of open shots that on a normal night probably would have gone in, but this was the 5th game in 6 nights and there were obviously some tired legs out there. The Kings also had 19 turnovers, and a lot of those seemed to be from rushing the pass and a lack of cohesion. The Kings have had pretty low turnovers most of the season, but that was because there was no ball movement from which to create a turnover. Tonight, I thought a few of the Kings turnovers were simply teammates being shocked that the ball was being given to them. I'm only half joking.
Another change from Westphal to Smart was a noticeable shift to play through the guards more instead of using the bigs to set up the halfcourt offense from the high post. There was still some of that, but not much, and for the most part the bigs were set up in the low post to attack the basket, which I liked, and DeMarcus especially seemed to respond well to it. Tyreke seemed a lot more energetic and aggressive, and he was also much better in fastbreak situations. The one fastbreak where he passed to Marcus, Marcus passed back to him, and then he fed it back to the trailing Hickson for the slam was a thing of beauty.
There are obviously still issues with this team that need to be addressed. The defense for most of the game was very bad, as the Bucks were shooting 60% for most of the game until they finally buckled down late. The offensive cohesion still needs some work. But I liked what I saw from this team late in the game. I don't envy Keith Smart right now, taking over a struggling team, with no training camp or pre-season to work with them, and very few practices and a bunch of road games coming up. He's off to a good start though and I look forward to seeing if this team can begin to harness their potential under his leadership.