Barely had the Kings christened their arena with its first regular-season win when they boarded a plane to begin a stretch of five road games in seven nights.
DeMarcus Cousins, for one, didn’t seem to mind. He looked forward to what the trip might reveal about a Kings team just dipping its toe into a season with a new head coach and reconfigured roster.
“The road is where you find yourself,” Cousins said after the Kings beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night. “You don’t have the crowd to lean on; you only have these guys in the locker room. You grow closer, learn your teammates better. You learn who’s in the fight with you, who’s not. You learn a lot on the road.”
This trip, just four games into the season, could be particularly telling. Early impressions of the Kings have been favorable, with wins in two of their first three games, the defense showing improvement under Dave Joerger and the players displaying some resiliency in a come-from-behind, 106-103 win over Minnesota.
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Those qualities should be tested over five games against Eastern Conference opponents, three of whom made the playoffs last season. The Kings open their trip Monday against the Hawks, last year’s No. 4 seed in the East, and finish by playing Toronto, which made the conference finals, on the second night of a back-to-back.
“It’s going to be a good one,” said veteran Matt Barnes. “It’s early still, but it’s a good measuring stick for us.”
Barnes is one of eight players on the Kings’ 15-man roster who was not on the team last season, and that doesn’t count the first-year head coach Joerger and several members of his staff. So there may also be a getting-to-know-you aspect to the first extended trip of the year.
“Being on an NBA team, you’re with people you work with more than you’re with your family,” said forward Rudy Gay. “Some guys you know, some guys you don’t. You get to know them, go out to eat, go to shoot-around, have brunch, go to the movies, do whatever you do. You’re a team; you have to do it together.”
There have been positive signs in that regard as well. The Kings’ locker room following Saturday night’s win featured some good-natured banter between players that was often notably absent after games last season.
“We’re bonding very well,” said center Kosta Koufos. “We have a lot of team chemistry. This is a true test for us coming up this week.”
Playing well can be a strong catalyst, and the Kings have done so for significant stretches, showing renewed defensive effort in a loss to the Spurs on Thursday and coming from 18 points down to defeat the Timberwolves.
After the win, Joerger cited a stat he apparently considers a benchmark for his defense: The Kings kept the Timberwolves from scoring on three consecutive possessions five different times in the second half. That included a stretch of seven consecutive stops in the third quarter as the Kings went on a 17-0 run.
Those games also showed areas where the Kings must improve. They started so slowly against Minnesota that Joerger removed the entire starting lineup in the first quarter and turned to the bench for a “jolt.” Joerger also said he must do a better job of getting open shots for his top scorers – Cousins, Gay and Arron Afflalo – as the offense at times has reverted to those players trying to isolate and create their own looks.
Still, Joerger said “there’s a nice difference between being 2-1 and 1-2, and how you feel about yourself. … That’s a better feeling getting on the plane.”
Gay said that in the third quarter Saturday, when the Kings held Minnesota to 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting, “we really put our foot down and became the team that we play like in practice.” Cousins painted their second-half comeback as a step forward.
“We had some adversity, but the thing was we knew what was wrong, we knew what our mistakes were,” Cousins said. “We corrected a little bit in the second quarter, at halftime came in and talked about it, third went out and did it. So it just shows our growth as a team.”