Nothing like a few plot twists in the preseason!
Unlike Monday's game in Portland, the Sacramento Kings kicked off last night by threatening to damn near run the Phoenix Suns out of their own building. The starting lineup of Rajon Rondo, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Willie Cauley-Stein, and DeMarcus Cousins was up 32-16 before the first subs were made.
Gay became a legit fire-breathing dragon for the night. It seemed like every shot he put up he connected. 30 points on 13 shots taken, including 6/7 from three point range is ridiculous efficiency. To be fair, a lot of the threes were wide open, as it seems the Suns haven't quite figured out their defensive scheme yet. But still, that's impressive even in an open gym. He got anywhere he wanted to on the court, a walking mismatch the Suns couldn't figure out. Fantastic way to bounce back after an abysmal showing in Portland.
Cousins was terrific in the first half, but had to come out in the second because of foul trouble. It seemed he was coasting on both sides of the court, as that aggressiveness we saw in Portland was missing. Well, that is until Jon Leur put him on a poster. Coming out of a timeout, Boogie then proceeded to remind Leur who is the best center in the league with an impressive spin move and dunk for an And-1. Otherwise, it felt like Cousins was floating out there. He got switched a couple times on Markieff Morris because he didn't run back on defense, which were the only times Morris did anything of note. Its preseason so its not a terrible thing for the established players to not go full throttle, but it was noteworthy.
Cauley-Stein got the nod as a starter with Kosta Koufos resting in Sacramento and was very impressive. The boxscore stats don't jump out at you (8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks in 28 minutes) but that doesn't quite capture the defensive impact that he had on the game. He has such an advanced understanding of playing the pick-and-roll already. He's able to cover so much ground so quickly and intelligently, challenging a perimeter player, sliding over to contain the roll-man, then closing out on a shooter. He made scoring in the paint a chore, the most valuable real estate on the basketball court. Moreover, it helps that he's able to defend athletic perimeter power forwards like Morris, who had a miserable night in part thanks to Willie's defensive acumen. The Kings severely struggled to defend that mold of power forward last season, and with Cauley-Stein those issues might be a thing of the past. Willie needs to improve his strength though, because while shooting 60% from the field is more than acceptable, he went up weakly a couple times in the paint to be stuffed by a Sun or the rim.
Rondo ran the team admirably in the first half but was struck with turnover-itis in the second. Seriously, he had five assists and two turnovers in the first quarter matched with three turnovers and zero assists in the third. Its natural for Rondo to take some time to learn his teammates' habits, but some were just bad decisions like throwing a risky behind the back pass on a fast break when he should have gone up for a layup. But he still flashes impressive court vision at times, such as when he found Cauley-Stein for a couple of dunks. Rondo runs out of bounds plays wonderfully, getting his teammates easy baskets in those situations. His jumper has still yet to arrive, both from three and the free throw line.
We're quickly learning that McLemore might be squeezed out in this offense. He wasn't bad today; he actually played his role pretty well, defending and running out on the fast break. He hit his only midrange jumper and missed his only three point attempt. He just didn't have much opportunity to much. That was even true when he came into the fourth quarter playing with the bench, as Darren Collison and Marco Belinelli dominated the ball. I always consider Ben as the thermometer of the offense; if he's playing well usually the ball movement is great. In that sense, it might be too early to judge Ben's performance since the team is still figuring itself out.
The bench for the most part had a forgettable night. Collison and Belinelli came out in the first half as if they were playing for the Suns. Collison turned it over FIVE times in a quarter, and mostly on consecutive possessions. He was throwing blind crosscourt passes that were easily intercepted and couldn't make a move without traveling. And Belinelli couldn't throw a rock into the ocean if he wanted to. He reminded me a bit of Jamal Crawford with some of the shots he was chucking up. The duo's ineptitude was the main reason the Suns climbed back from a 16 point deficit in the first place. They churned to life late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, helping the Kings build an eight point lead, but cooled off again to watch the Suns come from behind and steal the game. As much as I like watching Collison and Belinelli gun it up, I think maybe having them play the entire fourth quarter at the expense of Seth Curry and David Stockton is a waste. Hopefully we see more deep bench guard action soon.
The rest of the bench was mostly inept except for Eric Moreland. The sophomore big man got the nod tonight over Quincy Acy and battled hard, serving mostly as the anchor of some pretty tiny units. His size was an issue in the paint against the seven foot Alex Len, but he gave it everything he had. Moreland was also a strong force on the boards, grabbing seven in 16 minutes. The wings off the bench might as well have been wearing orange on the night. Omri Casspi has forgotten how to dribble this offseason, notching a ghastly amount of turnovers for the minutes he played. Caron Butler has amassed a lifetime of incredible experiences; last night's brick, foul, and turnoverfest was not among them. And James Anderson better find his shooting touch fast before he's be glued to the bench at best, looking for another job at worst.
Basically, there was a lot to look forward to and a lot to improve. Its fun seeing all the talent on the team. Its now up to George Karl to bring it all together. The Kings play tonight again against San Antonio. For those of you looking for a way to watch, may the force be with you.