All objective analysis had the Sacramento Kings losing this game tonight. They had just played last night against Phoenix, and it was the San Antonio Spurs coming into town with a day of rest after a 29 point drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night. And indeed they did lose, putting a damper on an otherwise high-flying night opening up the Golden 1 Center to the world. But if the final score is the only thing you take away from this game, you are seriously selling this Kings team short. The Spurs are a championship contender fresh off a 67 win season, and the Kings made them earn the W tonight.
For the Kings, DeMarcus Cousins was unstoppable. As a guy who is usually a victim of fatigue on the second night of a back-to-back, Cousins just kept coming, attacking the paint, getting to the free throw line, and peppering in jumpers. Cousins ended with 37 points and 16 rebounds, on stellar efficiency when you account for his 14/16 record at the free throw strike and 3/5 from the three point line (63.7 TS%). Rudy Gay was a terrific wingman for a half, scoring 12 of his 17 points, but slowed down considerably in the second half.
On the other end, the Spurs were led by a galactic destroyer known as Kawhi Leonard. Already the premiere defensive player in the NBA, Leonard is inconceivably making another leap in his offensive prowess. He shut the door on the Kings in the fourth quarter with timely fadeaways, assists, and defensive plays. In one memorable sequence, Kawhi swallowed Ben McLemore’s soul on back-to-back possessions when the poor kid tried to run a play facing up on Leonard, only to have Kawhi’s steely tentacles rip the ball right out of his hands. Leonard scored 31 points on 62.3 TS% and essentially neutralized Cousins’ big night. He’s an early favorite for the league MVP award.
The Kings actually led for much of the game, riding Cousins and Gay’s strong offensive production while keeping the Spurs at bay with their newfound defensive intensity. They led by as many as 11 in the first half, shooting over 50% from the field. The game truly turned in the third quarter, where the Spurs cracked the Kings by ratcheting up their own defensive pressure to another level. One adjustment in particular was the Spurs pressuring Ty Lawson and Garrett Temple fullcourt for most of the second half, taking a page from what the Suns did last night in their late third quarter run, and forcing the Kings to play on a shorter shot clock. In between the Spurs tightening the screws and fatigue from playing at such a high intensity level for two straight nights setting in, the Spurs retook the lead and started building a cushion of their own. The Kings led 66-57 with 7:20 left in the third quarter, sporting a 110.8 offensive rating and a 103.9 defensive rating. The Spurs crushed the Kings the rest of the way, with the Kings’ offensive rating falling to 75.3 and their defensive rating rising to 121.5.
But even down the stretch, the Kings didn’t just die. The fourth quarter featured some spirited runs powered by Cousins, tying the game at 83 with 7 minute to go. Although the offense was completely shut down, the Kings fought tooth and nail to the final buzzer, keeping the Spurs in sight until Leonard shut the door with back-to-back jumpers giving the Spurs a nine point lead with two minutes remaining.
Basically, if this is the quality of play we will get this season, sign me up. Dave Joerger’s already showing how good of a defensive coach he is, with the team making enormous strides on that end faster than even the most optimistic onlooker could have predicted. They still have a lot of work to do, particularly in nailing down some of the tricky details on defense and flow on offense. But that just means there is still untapped potential in this team. Onto the observations:
- Ty Lawson had another really nice outing on both offense and defense. He scored seven points on seven shots, but more importantly dished out nine assists to only one turnover. His defense on Tony Parker and Patty Mills was fantastic too, minus a couple of breakdowns. I thought he got a bit passive in the second half though; Lawson needs to keep defenses on his toes by looking for his shot, and he passed up quite a few trying to set up teammates. It seems like he’s overpassing for now, but I want to see the scoring killer that Lawson was from the Nuggets back.
- Joerger shortened the 11 man rotation to 10 tonight, and the victim was Omri Casspi. Matt Barnes didn’t light the world on fire scoring the ball, but was playing tough-nosed perimeter defense. Anthony Tolliver still hasn’t hit a three since his explosion against the Lakers, and struggled to rebound against the hyper-athletic Spurs bench duo of Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon. Perhaps Casspi should have had his minutes. Monday morning quarterbacking, coach!
- Kosta Koufos once again got most of his minutes next to Cousins, but with the Spurs starting Pau Gasol next to LaMarcus Aldridge, it made a lot more sense. Beyond a couple of flubbed passes and flip shots, he was rock solid, repeatedly making himself available for some dumpoff passes in the paint, and even showing off some nifty interior passing of his own.
- The Spurs bench is probably the deepest in the league, and even though the Kings bench is much improved, they still got wrecked 43-18. McLemore was responsible for 10 of those points, starting off the game knocking down multiple midrange jumpers. But then Kawhi Leonard happened and Ben was never seen again. Garrett Temple and Willie Cauley-Stein were both quiet tonight, but at least were sound on the defensive end. One play that stood out in my mind was when Cauley-Stein got the ball with the tiny Mills rotated on him and didn’t even try taking advantage, trying to pass the ball out instead of attacking the mismatch.
- By the way, the Golden 1 Center is absolutely amazing. Everything about it oozes Sacramento. It was so easy getting in-and-out, the sightlines from the upper deck were terrific, and the building itself is beautiful. Plus, I honestly think its even louder than Sleep Train Arena. Shoutout to Akis, Tony, Tim, Blake, Kevin and Brian for hanging out at halftime.
The Kings next play against the Timberwolves on Saturday. For the opponent’s perspective, visit Pounding the Rock.