At the end of December, the Sacramento Kings left for their four-game road trip struggling to regain their defensive mindset and any sense of identity. Failing to get back in transition, ball watching and an overall lack of pride in their defensive tenacity was spattered throughout their play on the floor and in their post-game comments in the locker room ever since the Dec. 14 dismissal of former head coach Michael Malone.
"Kings basketball" was gone and the players made it clear they needed to get it back.
The road trip didn't change much of that as the Kings went 1-4 with the confusion and frustration about the team's lack of direction seeming to boil even more. But for one night on Wednesday, something finally clicked for the Kings, as they were back in front of their home crowd at Sleep Train Arena. They dominated Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder from wire to wire in a convincing 104-83 victory. And they did it in a way that was familiar. They used the unconventional style of basketball they were playing in November when they were 9-5 and the talk of the NBA.
They didn't shoot well on Wednesday (they shot under 40 percent for the majority of the game) and didn't necessarily rack up the assists, but that didn't matter because they were playing that old-style of defense (at one point in the first half, the Thunder was shooting 9 percent from the field and the Kings held them to 32 percent overall for the game). When they weren't running on the break, they were playing bully ball with DeMarcus Cousins pounding the rock under the basket with little to no regard for the presence of Serge Ibaka. Cousins and the Kings got the Thunder into serious foul trouble, with Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison all picking up three fouls early. The Kings forced the Thunder as a whole into 25 personal fouls for the game and Ibaka had four of those. The Kings had plenty of free throws as a result - 22 attempts in the first half, and they made 19 of them. They finished with 28 attempts (Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 21 of those attempts.)
The Kings did not play great basketball; they played unusual basketball like they did in November. They did what they are capable of: good defense and getting to the free throw line. And they mixed in a little of the up-tempo style the front office is looking for by getting out and pushing the break after defensive stops to go along with three-point shooting (10-19).
Many of the Kings players agreed that what was on display Wednesday night is what they consider to be "Kings basketball."
"Tonight was one of our better games since earlier in the year … we were playing as a team and defensively, we were playing as a team," Darren Collison said. "Everybody had each other's back and there was no miscommunication, I think we were all on the same page."
DeMarcus Cousins, who had 23 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal and shot 11-13 from the free throw line, said the game was an example of the team getting back to their defensive ways that got them off to a hot start earlier this season, but said they also mixed in some of fast-paced style of offense.
"We played the right way tonight. We pushed the tempo, we defended, which is the main thing - we're a defensive team, regardless of what changed, we're still a defensive team," Cousins said. "It shows we do have an ability to do both and we've just got to be consistent with it from this game forward."
The vibe in the locker room on Wednesday was much different than the way things were after the Kings defeated the New York Knicks in overtime in their last home game before the road trip (a game they almost lost after blowing a big lead). Cousins responded with a somber tone to his first question from the media Wednesday with "It was a good win for the team." He quickly broke out in laughter saying he was just joking and that he wanted to try "a little Marshawn" Lynch. Jason Thompson said if Ben McLemore would have missed the 360 layup he tried toward the end of the game that it would have been featured on Shaqtin' A Fool "for sure."
The positive mood would be expected from a team that figured out a way, at least for a moment, to stop the bleeding. This was, after all, Tyrone Corbin's 11th game as head coach and the first time in that stretch that the Kings held an opponent to under 100 points. The Thunder's score, 83, also was the lowest point total the Kings have held an opponent to all season.
"It's definitely how we played earlier in the year and that's how we need to keep playing," said Jason Thompson. "We know we can score as a team and we've got to be able to get stops and get back to the winning ways that we were earlier in the season."
Corbin credited Tuesday's practice for helping to get the players in the right state of mind to take on the Thunder.
Ben McLemore agreed that the practice helped.
"We had a great practice. It was one of our best practices thus far and we just worked real hard the other day at practice as a team and defense was good, offense was good, we executed our plays and we just tried to carry that into tonight's game," McLemore said.
It's way too early, of course, to say that one game has cured the problems that have plagued the Kings over the last month, but Wednesday was a good start as the team tries to turn the corner on the fallout from the firing of Michael Malone and remember what "Kings basketball" is like.
"This is new for everybody. Not easy for us, it's not easy for Ty [Corbin], not easy for anybody right now, so the best way for all of us to get through is to come together, find some type of positivity and find a way to move forward," Cousins said.
The Kings will get a good shot at finding more positivity over the next week as their next five games are at home.