Last night the Kings were without their best player in DeMarcus Cousins. I'm sure I'm not alone when I thought to myself, "well, here comes the blowout."
But Sacramento did not get blown out. In fact they came out incredibly strong, albeit helped by a bafflingly large amount of misses at the rim by the Thunder. Offensively the Kings were able to carve up the Thunder defense, with Vasquez penetrating and guys moving off the ball.
Alas the fast start eventually gave way to a Thunder takeover in the second and third quarters. Kevin Durant is nigh unstoppable, and I think the Kings played him about as well as anyone could have hoped for. He scored 27 points, but did so on just 8-21 shooting. Fellow superstar Russell Westbrook also struggled more than I expected, going just 7-19 for 15 points along with 7 turnovers. Still, the Thunder were able to stymie Sacramento's offense and went on an 18-0 run to push the lead to 17 points in the 4th quarter.
The problem for Sacramento at that point was scoring. After the hot start, nobody else really caught fire. Ben McLemore was getting open looks, but shot just 4-12. Derrick Williams had a solid game, shooting 5-10 for 13 points. But guys like Marcus Thornton, Patrick Patterson, and Isaiah Thomas weren't hitting shots. Patterson and Thornton, after amazing games against the Warriors, finished the night a combined 3-17 from the field for 8 points.
In the fourth quarter, Isaiah Thomas happened. He had been playing far too passively, as Coach Malone mentioned in the post-game, and was just 1-6. Isaiah's game is not to make plays for others. It's to make plays for himself and to use that ability to then make plays for others. So with nothing to lose and the Kings down big, Isaiah made plays. He went on to score 21 points in the quarter (he leads the league in 4th quarter scoring), on an array of layups, fastbreaks, and three pointers. Thomas even had a chance to send the game into overtime for the second game in a row, and got a much better look than the previous game. It's a shot that we've seen Isaiah make plenty of times, but tonight it didn't fall. Unlike against the Warriors, I have absolutely no problem with Isaiah taking this shot. It was an open look, and he was the hot hand. We wouldn't have been in that position without him.
Sacramento's biggest problem continues to be a lack of consistency, and a lot of that simply comes down to personnel. The Kings have two players that you can point to that have been consistently good all season: DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas. The next best players have probably been Greivis Vasquez, Travis Outlaw, and Ben McLemore. Sacramento's third best player, Carl Landry, hasn't played a minute all year. John Salmons continues to be a heavy rotation player. Jason Thompson and Patrick Patterson haven't been playing well. Coach Malone has been ping-ponging between Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette in search of someone who can score off the bench besides Isaiah. Hamady N'Diaye has played 52 minutes more than I thought he would.
This Kings team needs talent. That's why I was happy with the Derrick Williams trade. It was a shot at acquiring talent, and so far (Small Sample Size Institute Approved) it's been working out alright. Trading Tyreke for Vasquez allowed us to acquire talent back rather than let Evans go for nothing.
We can complain about rotations and the such, but it's hard for teams without a lot of quality consistent players to have quality consistent rotations. I think this team is closer to being good than to being really bad. I understand that Sacramento's record right now shows them as a really bad team. But they're competing, and doing so with the toughest schedule in the league, and I have faith that this team will continue to acquire talent. Part of that will simply be added experience for young guys like Ben McLemore. Part of that will be trades like the one for Williams. Heck, part of that is going to be being bad this year to get another high draft pick. That's not tanking, that's just facts. We are not a good team yet.
The mounting losses (especially at home) aren't easy to swallow, but in the last couple years we've endured far worse. For now, I'll take competing every night and growth from the young guys. I'll take entertaining fourth quarter takeovers by Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins learning to dominate in the post. We're headed in the right direction, and I can't help but feel that we'll be better sooner rather than later.