The Sacramento Kings had every reason to fall apart tonight. Down three rotation players on the second night of a backto-back, the Kings could have folded up shop and played the excuse game.
Instead, they fought tooth-and-nail with the Dallas Mavericks down to the final buzzer. And although the end result was definitely heartbreaking, the Kings know they can hold their heads high for pure nerve through two overtimes, losing to a last gasp Deron Williams three pointer at the buzzer.
Still, it can't be denied that this loss stings. The Kings, after crawling back from a 10 point third quarter deficit to the tie the game multiple times in regulation, were in clear control of the game, up 7 with 1:20 seconds left in the second overtime. DeMarcus Cousins was simply brilliant, both inside, outside, and on defense. He scored 35 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to power the Kings all night long, fighting off any notion that the fatigue from playing the night before would limit him in George Karl's breakneck paced system. Unfortunately, he did have 10 turnovers; it continues to be a weakness of Karl's system that Boogie has so much freedom to iso from the perimeter against a set defense. ZaZa Pachulia also made things extremely difficult by repeatedly poking the ball loose when Boogie made a move in the post. Cousins is talented in the post, but raw; there are some distinct skills he needs to work on, such as finishing post moves going left, protecting the ball when he makes moves, and at times reading double teams.
Rudy Gay was also en fuego, and not a moment too soon; everytime the Kings needed a bucket, it was Gay who stepped through, whether it was a three, a midrange pullup, or a post-up. Rudy scored 31 points on only 20 shots, none bigger than the three that gave the Kings a 7 point lead with 1:20 to go. Gay had been struggling fiercely coming into the game, but he was able to get into his spots today against the smaller Maverick wings. Getting him into that midrange post area for set shots can devastate a defense.
Without Rajon Rondo and Omri Casspi, the Kings needed their backup guards to step up. Marco Belinelli was fairly quiet the entire night before exploding at the end of regulation for a couple of threes, shaking loose by using some rugged Cousins screens multiple times. The Kings looked done in regulation with the Mavericks up four with about a minute to go, but Belinelli's sharpshooting brought them back to life. The better the Kings execute plays, the more effective Belinelli becomes, and George Karl flexed his after time-out muscle designing some great plays to get Belinelli open.
Collison, unfortunately, had a night he'd mostly want to forget. He shot the ball poorly all night long, going 6/14 from the field and 0/4 from three to score 14 points. He did have 12 assists to only 3 turnovers (all of which came in the opening minutes of the game), but they mostly came swinging the ball around the perimeter and blasting it up the court to leaking teammates. Collison also struggled to defend tonight, although it may be chalked up to fatigue. Deron Williams had a vintage scoring night on the Kings, scoring 25 points besides hitting the game-winning buzzer-beater. Collison also struggled to get through screens and found himself multiple times switching onto Dirk Nowitzki and his legendary midrange game, which often ended badly for the Kings.
The Kings put the ball in Collison's hands with a minute to go in the second overtime nursing their 7 point lead, and Collison did not pull through. That being said, I find it hard to blame Collison alone; the Kings simply stopped running plays, opting instead to dribble the clock down to three or four seconds left before forcing Collison to pullup for midrange prayers with a hand in his face. I noted that the Kings ran this "prevent offense" in the last game against OKC, which worked out. This time, it probably cost them the game. The Kings didn't score a single point and weren't even close to getting a decent shot down the stretch.
Overall, you can chalk this up as another game that the Kings had in the bag and choked, but also one that it took some serious mental fortitude to even have a shot at winning in the first place. The Kings are now 14-21 for the season, only two games out of the eighth seed. The wild race for the last couple of playoff spots is starting to heat up, and finally the Kings are in the thick of things. If they can come out with the type of intensity the showed today they have as much chance as any of the contenders to make it in.
Some quick observations:
- Seth Curry and Quincy Acy both stepped up with huge performances, about as much as you can ask for end-of-bench guys. George Karl actually stuck with Curry through both overtimes instead of Ben McLemore. Curry competes hard on defense and has a reliable three point stroke, alongside some solid ballhandling ability. Acy's energy is infectious, and he actually hit his shots today to give the Kings a much needed boost.
- I can't give enough props to Cousins' effort on both sides of the floor. This was one of the best performances I've ever seen from Boogie, and I've watched pretty much every dribble Boogie has ever taken ever since he's come into the league. His screens got shooters open. He crashed the glass. He chased shooters on the perimeter and played goalie in the paint. He relentlessly attacked both Pachulia and JaVale McGee in the post, even after getting stymied from time to time. And this was the second night of a back-to-back! This was definitely a superstar effort from the Boogie monster. His curling drive to the rim to tie the game in regulation is something I'd like to see more of.
- Ever since the Philly game, the Kings offense has looked far more organized. It looks like they're actually running an NBA system for the first time all year (as in one that flows naturally from option to option). But they still need to be more strategic about which option they try to run. There was one particular play where JJ Barea had switched onto a red hot Rudy Gay, but the Kings offense went to Cousins isolating against a set Pachulia, a play that rarely works. Getting Rondo back will help since he often makes these reads better than anyone.
- More Cousins: He passed Chris Webber to become the all-time rebounding leader in the Sacramento era. Congrats Boogie! Here's to more franchise records smashed in the future.
- Ben McLemore was another no-show in tonight's game, getting benched for Seth Curry down the stretch. But honestly, I'm not worried about Ben. He needs more game-time experience to become a consistent contributor, and his defense, shooting and passing has progressed enough to keep him around. Its particularly amusing to me that the same people who praise Omri Casspi, who is just now breaking out in his seventh season, are so eager to tear Ben down whenever he doesn't play up to par. All indications are that he works hard in practice, so he's the type of guy you keep around and develop, not discard. But for now, he's going to continue seeing crunch time on the bench because he's too inconsistent.