There were a few moments Friday night when the opponent made its push to take control of the game. A decision had to be made collectively by the Kings players: Were they going to let the game slip away like they had been doing for the majority of the season by resorting to hero ball, or fight and close it out?
They chose the latter.
The last couple of months for the Kings has been an overall lethargic display of how not to play basketball. But something different happened against the Boston Celtics in front the raucous home crowd at Sleep Train Arena on Friday. The Kings showed resilience and consistent energy and passion. And most importantly, they executed.
Center DeMarcus Cousins said there was a correlation to George Karl being at the helm for the first time as the Kings head coach.
"We could have easily just said, ‘all right, forget it we're going to go back to our old ways,' and start trying to play one-on-one basketball, but we stuck through it and came out with a good win," Cousins told reporters after the game. "His [Karl's] resume, I don't even really have to speak on. I believe every guy in this locker room respects that and they trust his word, so I think that played a big part in us just continuing to grind it out."
Even though it was one game against an undermanned Boston Celtics team, the Kings played with a fire that we haven't seen since the beginning of the season. Less than a week and two practices in, it is premature to say that Karl has already got the train back on the rails, but he certainly began tipping it in that direction Friday.
"He's very motivational. His energy alone brings energy to the team," Cousins said of Karl. "I think everybody had fun out there tonight. I don't think guys had fun like that since probably earlier in the season. We're running, we're having fun, we're sharing the ball."
The Kings had 26 assists, but 24 turnovers (those aren't fun!). Cousins tallied 31 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals (and nine of those 24 turnovers). Karl wants to fix the sloppy turnovers, but liked what he saw in the energy department and was pleased his team made free throws when it counted. He also enjoyed Cousins' defense.
"Cuz made some good defensive plays, I actually remember his defensive plays more than I remember his offensive plays ... he actually had a fast-break breakup. That doesn't happen very often; a seven footer runs down and kind of makes a guy miss an easy shot," Karl said.
So far, Karl and Cousins appear to be clicking. They have been seen smiling and joking at practice and Karl has told Cousins that he thinks it would be good if the two of them check in with each other for 5 to 15 minutes every day. Aside from his impressive pedigree as a coach and his general basketball knowledge, Karl seems to have a knack for understanding and getting through to his players. Newly acquired point guard Andre Miller, who played his first game with the Kings on Friday, said Karl is able to connect with his squad.
"He's doing a lot more teaching and he knows how to deal with players and egos and that's why he's been so successful in this league," said Miller, who scored 8 points to go along with 4 rebounds and 4 assists off the Kings bench.
If you talk to Rudy Gay these days, he is discussing the things he needs to work on to fit into Karl's system: getting to the basket more, playing off his teammates and picking up his defensive aggressiveness. Karl has said he wants to use Gay at the power forward spot more as he is interested in a "position-less" style of play. It was something Gay noticed in Karl's first game.
"Nobody really had a position. Obviously Cuz, he's just the biggest guy out there. But other than that, nobody really had a position," said Gay, who had 28 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks. "Moved the ball, everybody got open and we hit open shots."
Karl, like Cousins, doesn't seem to be shy about expressing his true feelings. The new coach humbly admitted to being nervous about addressing the team for the first time earlier this week and about playing his first game in front of the Sacramento crowd - a crowd that gave him a roaring ovation before Friday's game. Karl also wasn't shy about saying he didn't think he was as alert as he should have been, feeling like he got "punched a little bit" at the start of the game when the Celtics jumped out to a big lead. But he soon discovered how to get the most out of a bench that had been underperforming all season as the Kings took ahold of the game.
Early in his career, Karl's emotions would come out in an overly forceful manner, as Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post told us earlier this week. But so far in Sacramento, Karl speaks in a collected manner with a sense of purpose and a clear understanding of the state of mind his players have. He knows Cousins is fiery, talented, what kind of challenges he faces on a nightly basis as the team's best player and what he can get out of him.
"I'm just amazed how many hits he takes and still keeps on ticking," Karl said of Cousins. "He's got great hands, he has a big, huge body. I thought his efficiency was what I liked about his game tonight. Other than his turnovers, his shot selection was pretty good. He trusts he would get the ball rather than get frustrated when he didn't get the ball."
Cousins' mood after the game on Friday reflected a guy who was excited and a little bit relieved - he may have the man he trusts and needs on the sidelines who can help him crack the code of winning basketball games on a consistent basis after all.
"I think we're a more free team, he's not really putting any player in a box ... He's a coach that believes in every player on the team so I think that's fun for a lot of players," Cousins said.
A lot of fun for the entire roster, but most importantly, it may be fun for the team's franchise player, who has seen his fair share of instability in Sacramento up until this point.
Karl is having fun too. As long as his players "don't drive me crazy with the turnovers."