The second round of the NBA draft is pretty much a crapshoot, with a bunch of these players not even making the final roster or even playing a minute in the NBA. Every once in a while however, you find a special player that falls for one reason or another. The Kings found one such diamond in the rough with the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft in Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas proved to be key difference in this game, waking up the seemingly lifeless Kings, who got off to a terrible start. Sacramento was down by as much as 18 points in the 1st half, and only went 13 for 40 from the field. That all changed after the break however, as Thomas had a career performance. He came off the bench to play 26 minutes, and ended up scoring 17 points (6-11 from the field, 3-6 from three), to go with 6 assists, 5 rebounds and a steal. His energy seemed to perk up the other Kings as well, particularly DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins was just one rebound away from a 2nd consecutive 20-20 game, and finished with a game-high 28 points, 19 rebounds, 3 blocks, a steal, and only two fouls and two turnovers. Isaiah may have been the match, but Cousins was the fire, just destroying the Hornets inside and out, and gobbling up every rebound like Jon Brockman in an IHOP.
For the Hornets, their biggest contributions surprisingly came from their guards, the one area you'd think the Kings would have easily won. But Vasquez torched the Kings early and finished with 20 points on just 9 shots to go with 9 assists. Marco Belinelli also did most of his damage early and finished with 18 points and 4 assists. Emeka Okafor chipped in 19 points (11 of which came in the first six minutes of the game) and 7 rebounds, but was thoroughly outplayed by the bigger Cousins down the stretch.
As mentioned previously, Sacramento got off to a terrible start, missing almost everything they put up. Marcus Thornton was particularly off target, and remained so for the rest of the night, although he did hit a big shot or two in the final quarter. Thornton finished with 12 points on 12 shots, and was late on a lot of defensive rotations, leading to Belinelli and Xavier Henry abusing him early or getting open for threes.
The Kings poor start and Thornton's shooting struggles led to the insertion of Jimmer Fredette for the first time in three games. Jimmer played just 10 minutes, and while he shot (5 points on 3 shots) and passed well (only 1 assist, but found a couple other players wide open who just missed), his defense left something to be desired.
Jason Thompson likewise was a relative non-factor thanks to foul trouble. JT picked up 4 fouls in 17 minutes and finished with just 4 points and 2 rebounds. Chuck Hayes ended up playing most of the Power Forward minutes, which turned out to be a good thing.
With 1:55 left in the 2nd quarter, New Orleans hit two free throws to give themselves a 52-34 lead, and things were looking rather bleak for Sacramento. The Hornets didn't score again in the half however, and Sacramento rattled off 5 quick points to end the half, including a buzzer beating layup by Cousins to send the Kings in the half down just 13 points. At this point, the Kings should have been feeling relatively happy to be only down 13, as they had only made 13 of 40 shots and were being dominated on the glass.
The second half started and it was clear the Kings had turned up the defensive pressure. Unfortunately they still couldn't get much going offensively to capitalize on the stops they were getting. Tyreke Evans was struggling with running the offense, and that included taking a couple of bad shots and being stymied on a drive or two. So at the 6:43 mark with the Kings still down 12, Coach Smart substituted in Isaiah Thomas for Tyreke and the dynamic of the game changed.
It didn't immediately start with Isaiah however. John Salmons, who had been relatively quiet up to that point, rattled off 8 points in a row for the Kings, including two threes, to cut the lead to single digits. John would finish with 10 points and 1 rebound in 28 minutes.
Then it was Isaiah's turn. He started off by hitting a long two point jumper. The next possession he found Jason Thompson for a short shot in the paint. Then he drove to the basket and threw a no look behind his head pass to DeMarcus, who charged in for the dunk. Isaiah went on to score a couple more layups, getting right by Vasquez, and also finding DeMarcus for a jumper. During this stretch the Kings cut the lead to as little as 5 points, and it was a new ballgame. Unfortunately the Hornets closed the quarter strong, and Vasquez's running layup at the buzzer gave New Orleans the 9 point lead going into the final period.
The 4th quarter saw a slow start for both teams. The Kings were first to strike, but both teams went back and forth for the first couple minutes with the only basket being a layup from Cousins. Coach Smart took this time to insert Tyreke Evans back into the lineup after he had received a long rest, and Tyreke did what he did best: attack the basket. In the next two minutes, Tyreke managed to score 4 layups, including an and-one, and ended up tying the game at 80 apiece. It was first time the game had been tied since 0-0. Tyreke would finish with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists (but also 4 turnovers).
Sacramento finally took the lead on the next possession as Marcus Thornton got to the line and hit a free throw, making it 81-80 with 6:24 seconds left. At this point the only points that New Orleans had scored in the quarter were from a jumper by Chris Kaman. Chuck Hayes and DeMarcus Cousins were pairing up to do a fantastic job in the paint defensively and on the boards, and Isaiah and Tyreke were stopping the Hornets guards from penetrating at will.
The next couple of minutes were a back and forth affair with the game in the balance. Gustavo Ayon, the rookie from Mexico, mopped up a miss by Okafor to give New Orleans the lead back at 82-81. On the other end of the floor, Isaiah Thomas hit a big three over Vasquez to make it 84-82. Vasquez came right back and sank a jumper to tie it. DeMarcus got fouled and hit both of his free throws, but Trevor Ariza got into the lane and made a layup. At 86-86 it seemed as if whichever team could make a couple stops in a row and hit their own shots was going to win.
Luckily, all the momentum was going the Kings way. Marcus Thornton hit a big three on a drive and kick from Tyreke Evans to make it 89-86. On defense, Isaiah drew a big charge on Vasquez and Tyreke took it all the way for a layup to give Sacramento a 5 point lead. The Hornets came back the other way and found Okafor under the basket, but a hard foul by Hayes stopped what would have been an easy layup. Okafor hit his free throws though and it was only a three point game at 91-88 with 2:38 seconds left. New Orleans almost stole the ball away on the next possession, but it was batted out to Isaiah at the halfcourt line, who had 5 seconds to make something out of nothing.
What he made ended up being the dagger in the Hornet's hearts:
That three pointer gave the Kings a 94-88 lead, which they ended up extending to 98-88 before the Hornets started intentionally fouling. Sacramento ended up winning 100-92, holding New Orleans to just 14 points in the 4th quarter.
The Kings finished the game shooting 37-78 from the field (47.4%), which after a 13 of 40 start meant they went 24 of 38 in the 2nd half (63.2%). They also won the rebounding battle 22-20 in the second half thanks to Cousins' dominance.
This was a big win for the Kings. Road victories have been hard to come by all year and blowouts had become an all too regular occurrence. This game seemed like it would be no different to start, especially depressing considering New Orleans' 4-20 record coming into tonight. But Sacramento managed to fight back, and closed it out down the stretch. The Kings now have a 3 game winning streak going into tomorrow's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who will be without Kevin Love. Hopefully they can carry tonight's momentum and energy to another victory.