José Luis Villegas /

Despite exact record as last season, Kings say this season is more positive than a year ago

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 19, 2014 - 11:57 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 - 9:06 am

Unhappy with what he would later term the “disinterested” play of his team early in the third quarter Tuesday night, Kings coach Michael Malone called a timeout to send his players a message.

“He just said, ‘For the rest of the year, I want you guys to do one thing and that’s play hard and give it your all,’ ” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “ ‘And if you’re not going to be a pro and do that, then let me know and I’ll sit you down.’

“That kind of turned the corner on us and we got going.”

Down by eight points early in the third quarter and as many as 11 in the fourth, the Kings forced overtime and defeated the Washington Wizards 117-111 at SleepTrain Arena. It brought their record to 24-44 – their exact mark through 68 games last season – despite the fact there is new ownership, coaches, management and only four players remaining from last season’s roster.

One of those players, center DeMarcus Cousins, was asked after Tuesday’s win to assess the Kings at this point compared to a year ago. Despite a lack of progress in the standings, Cousins cited a difference in tone within the locker room.

“This season, of course we’re not a playoff team, we’re not playing for a playoff spot, but we’re playing to continue to get better, we’re playing to continue to grow,” Cousins said. “Last year we were playing to get the season over.

“We really didn’t have a goal for our future. We were in the moment. It was really no – there was nothing to look forward to last year. So I would say that’s the big difference.”

Malone and the Kings have been adamant about their intent to use the rest of the season to establish an identity based on defense and effort while evaluating their roster. Malone reiterated before Tuesday’s game: “Don’t be surprised to see different lineups to start. Don’t be surprised to see different lineups throughout the game.”

Rookie guard Ben McLemore wound up playing a career-high 50 minutes, while Reggie Evans made just his fourth start with the Kings. Still, when the game reached its critical point, the lineup of Thomas, McLemore, Cousins, Rudy Gay and Derrick Williams held the floor for the final eight minutes of regulation and all of overtime.

Perhaps no player addressed the tenuous nature of this season’s final month better than Gay – both on the court and after. Gay, who scored 16 of his 24 points after the third quarter, was asked about taking it upon himself to be more aggressive on offense late in a game.

“It’s kind of been a stale moment here,” Gay said. “It’s kind of gotten stale to the point where you play and you realize you’re trying to build for the future, but I’ve still got to go out there and prove something. I’m just trying to do that as much as I can.”

While the Kings improved to 7-3 when Gay, Cousins and Thomas each score at least 20 points, Cousins said the team winning is “not just about us three – everybody has a role and we depend on that person to do their role every night.” Asked if those roles are becoming more clear, Cousins said: “I think they are. I think they could be a lot clearer. But it’s all part of growing up.”

After the game, Malone several times said he was pleased with the Kings’ effort in their first game back from a season-long, seven-game trip. “We could have easily mailed this game in,” Malone said, “but we came back for it.”

“I told our guys in one of our huddles, ‘The worst kind of player or team you can be associated with is one that just quits and doesn’t care,’• ” Malone said. “We looked like that for just a little bit (Tuesday). But I’m very proud that we didn’t stay in that.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewkawahara.

Read more articles by Matt Kawahara

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