After his bench players factored heavily into a win over the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, Kings coach Dave Joerger said he thinks his team’s “second unit’s been fantastic all season.”
Who makes up that unit has been far less consistent.
On Saturday, for example, veterans Ty Lawson and Matt Barnes were joined by Anthony Tolliver, who barely played for the first month of the season, Willie Cauley-Stein, who last month went nine consecutive games without logging double-digit minutes, and Malachi Richardson, a rookie playing his 16th game.
Recent injuries to Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi and Garrett Temple have required Joerger to juggle his rotation. Yet his latest second-line group combined to outscore the Warriors’ bench 45-16 in the Kings’ 109-106 overtime victory.
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Checking in to begin the second quarter, the reserves inherited a 31-27 deficit and led 42-41 by the time DeMarcus Cousins replaced Richardson with 5:41 left. Tolliver, Barnes and Cauley-Stein finished the game with double-digit points, while Barnes added a team-high 14 rebounds.
In the beginning of the year, we would just stand there and watch (DeMarcus Cousins) work. Now we’re starting to move off the ball, he’s getting more assists, and it’s getting everybody else involved.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings center
“Hats off to guys being ready,” Barnes said. “Guys have been hurt, guys have been in and out … But I think one thing you can say is whoever’s been on the court has been ready to play.”
Lawson has been the bench’s closest thing to a constant since becoming the backup point guard in November after Darren Collison’s return from a suspension. On Saturday, Cousins called him “the head of the snake” who “makes our second unit go.”
While his surrounding cast fluctuates, Lawson said he has been able to adjust and run the offense because he knows his teammates’ preferences.
“Malachi, he likes to come off pin-downs for a quick shot. Ben (McLemore), same thing. With Willie, try to give him as many pick-and-rolls as possible.”
Richardson has received regular playing time only in the past few weeks – he was 1 for 1 from the floor in six minutes Saturday – but Lawson said the rookie shooting guard adds a dimension to the second unit’s offense.
“With the bench, usually I’m the only playmaker,” Lawson said. “With him, I know I can have him off the pick-and-roll, or if I swing it to him he’s able to drive and get into the paint and make a shot for himself. So he’s actually been helping me out a lot.”
Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, is on a scoring roll, with double-digit points in five of his last eight games. Six of his 14 points Saturday came on dunks, two assisted by Lawson, who said the two have talked extensively about their pick-and-roll strategy.
“At first he used to just stay in the pocket (after setting the pick),” Lawson said. “I told him to look at DeAndre (Jordan). When he sets a screen, head straight to the rim. Either he’s going to bring (a defender) in, or he’s going to get a lob.”
Hats off to guys being ready.
Matt Barnes, Kings forward
Cauley-Stein said Saturday he feels that if the Kings “want to be the type of caliber team we’re saying we’re trying to be, our second group has got to be just as good as our first group. I think we’re finding that out and we’re finding our groove on the second unit – how we can play and what’s different than how the first group plays.”
The main difference is the Kings’ first unit has one of the NBA’s premier scorers in Cousins, who naturally gets most of the touches. Their bench lacks a dominant scorer.
“So it’s a lot more movement; it’s a lot more pace,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’re moving in transition, we’re setting screens, we’re passing.”
Ideally, Cauley-Stein said, that tempo becomes contagious.
“In the beginning of the year, we would just stand there and watch (Cousins) work,” he said. “Now we’re starting to move off the ball, he’s getting more assists, and it’s getting everybody else involved.”
A night after recording his second triple-double of the season against Phoenix, Cousins came one assist shy of another against the Warriors. His six points in overtime, though, might not have been possible without the bench, which scored 12 of the Kings’ 16 points in the fourth quarter in perhaps their most impressive win this season.
“Ultimately, if you get everybody else involved and play good team defense,” Cauley-Stein said, “we’re going to win games.”