The Sacramento Kings have been known to lay monstrous eggs in situations like this. Whenever the 8th slot in the Western Conference has been up for grabs, the Kings have failed over and over again to take advantage. But tonight, it was nearly impossible for the Kings to screw it up, because the opponent was a genuinely horrible Los Angeles Lakers squad on a day where one guy on their entire team played well.
One thing is for sure: the Kings are going as far as DeMarcus Cousins takes them. He continued his absolutely brilliant month of January with a dominant 36 point, 16 rebound performance. The Lakers had nobody who could guard him; Roy Hibbert was too slow and picked up 5 fouls trying, while Julius Randle and Brandon Bass were too small to avoid getting outmuscled in the post. Rajon Rondo also put up huge numbers (11 points and 17 assists), although he was out-of-control a lot of the time.
Willie Cauley-Stein also delivered his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. This was an outstanding outing for Willie; He scored in opportunistic ways by running the floor, crashing the offensive glass, and even hit a midrange jumper. On defense, the rookie was an absolute menace protecting the rim, combining with Rudy Gay's solid effort (career high 6 blocks) to make life extremely difficult in the paint.
That being said, this was a fairly frustrating effort for much of the night. The Kings pushed the tempo hard, and were incredibly sloppy while doing it. They only had 14 turnovers, but they squandered so many opportunities just by bad decisionmaking, whether it was alley-oops thrown too high, taking rushed shots off the dribble, or trying to squeeze passes through impossible spots. It seems like whenever the team has an extended period of rest, they play rusty and out of rhythm, looking disorganized and chaotic just as much as they look brilliant.
Defensively, this team still is hampered by poor principles, and I don't think George Karl has the defensive chops on that side of the court to adjust. They allow middle penetration off of pick-and-rolls without much resistance instead of forcing ballhandlers to make plays from tough angles on the baseline. They still gamble for steals and deflections, which is undoubtedly a Karl directive to get the team out into the open court, sacrificing defensive positioning and picking up reach-in fouls for high-risk, high-reward home run plays. They fall into an odd zone look at times that gives up practice-esque shots in the midrange and backdoor. The Kings are buoyed by their talented interior defenders, but otherwise I don't know if there is going to be any kind of revolution on that end as long as the coaches are committed to this scheme.
But as long as the Kings are on the Karl train, the fans are along for the ride. And right now its chugging along at 8th place in the Western Conference exactly halfway through the season. This is the closest the Kings have been to the playoffs since the great Rick Adelman was ousted from Sacramento. And even if they fall short, its a breath of fresh air for the Kings to even be in the conversation at this point in the season.
- With 8 minutes left in the game and the Kings nursing a five point lead, Karl went with a lineup of Rondo, Collison, Casspi, Gay and Cousins. This lineup crushed the Lakers 22-7 to end the game. Gay in particular really stepped up his defense in the paint, tag-teaming with Cousins down the stretch to completely choke off the Lakers offense. The Lakers also went cold from the perimeter, which helped the defensive numbers.
- Ben McLemore was aggressive off the dribble looking for his shot, which was great to see. Unfortunately his night was limited by foul trouble because he kept getting caught getting handsy with the Lakers guards, which wasn't so great to see. Ben needs to find the zen between being aggressive and smart.
- Darren Collison was badly underused tonight. The Kings ran play after play for Marco Belinelli, giving him a green light to shoot off of pindown screens and off the dribble, but Belinelli didn't reward the Kings' trust and shot just 2/10 from the field. Meanwhile, Collison was parked in the corner despite obviously being the Kings' best bench player. The bench offense needs to flow through him.
- Brandon Bass had the game of his life, scoring 18 points in 29 minutes. He was relentless in the paint, taking advantage of some deft Lakers interior passing to finish repeatedly through a crowd of defenders. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Bass this season given the Lakers' not-so-subtle tank job.