The news stung the Kings for a while.
Coming off their best stretch this season, the Kings returned from the All-Star break without their All-Star, DeMarcus Cousins. Sacramento traded the center and forward Omri Casspi to New Orleans while just 1 1/2 games behind Denver for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
The Kings beat the Nuggets in their first game after the break but have lost five in a row since then. On Monday night, Denver beat Sacramento 108-96 at Pepsi Center to open a four-game lead over the Kings for the West’s No. 8 berth.
Even without starting center Nikola Jokic (illness), the Nuggets sprinted past the Kings, who completed a back-to-back set.
Wilson Chandler had a career-high 36 points for Denver, which shot 49.3 percent. Sacramento shot 43.4 percent.
“It’s the toughest thing in the world,” Kings guard Ty Lawson said. “To come here on a back-to-back, especially. Mile high, your legs are heavy. My legs were heavy before the game, so it’s tough. We’ve just got to keep working.”
At this point, everybody’s on the same page. We’re trying to win. We’re trying to get to the eighth spot just for the story. It’s going to help guys’ whole outcome of their game if we can continue to make strides and win.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings center
While adjusting to Cousins’ absence, the Kings remain focused on reaching the playoffs. A playoff berth would cost them one of two potential lottery draft choices, because the Kings surrender their pick to Chicago if it is outside the top 10.
But the players gain nothing from helping the team draft their possible replacement, so they hope to shock the NBA.
“At this point, everybody’s on the same page,” center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We’re trying to win. We’re trying to get to the eighth spot just for the story. It’s going to help guys’ whole outcome of their game if we can continue to make strides and win.”
The team’s resolve isn’t surprising. Even as they struggled early in coach Dave Joerger’s first season, the players established a culture of trust and accountability.
After Rudy Gay’s season-ending Achilles’ injury Jan. 18, the Kings showed resilience, going 8-8 to narrow the gap on the Nuggets entering the All-Star break.
Cousins’ play and Matt Barnes’ leadership helped foster that environment. Now the remaining veterans must sustain it.
“We’ve had good people, and we’ve got good people,” Joerger said. “You have to decide what you’re going to be about and what you hold guys to and what you’re asking them to hold each other to.”
Guard Arron Afflalo said the players recently made a “re-commitment” to do all they could to reach the playoffs. They hadn’t given up, but the trade of the team’s best player after a decent stretch can be jarring.
“Our window for trying to make the playoffs is very slim,” Afflalo said. “But we have to compete, go as hard as we can.”
Guard Darren Collison, whose 17 points led seven Kings in double figures, said fatigue played a role Monday but was “still no excuse.”
“We didn’t do some things well that we did in the previous game,” he said. “ … We’ve got to find a way to be mentally tougher.”
Notes – In the “last two minute” report from Sacramento’s loss to Utah on Sunday, the league determined the Kings had some legitimate gripes.
A five-second inbound call against Afflalo with 53.8 seconds left in regulation was deemed incorrect. He had the ball less than five seconds before trying to call timeout.
When Gordon Hayward cut the Kings’ lead to 96-95 on a 3-pointer with 10.9 seconds to play, he freed himself from Afflalo thanks to a Rudy Gobert screen that should have been an offensive foul.
The Kings lost 110-109 on Gobert’s tip-in at the overtime buzzer.
“We thought Gobert had set an illegal screen,” Joerger said. “And it’s tough. I told the guys after the game Utah has a better record but (Sunday) night I felt like we deserved to win.”
Regarding the officiating, Joerger said, “People make mistakes.”
Our window for trying to make the playoffs is very slim. But we have to compete, go as hard as we can.
Arron Afflalo, Kings guard
▪ Entering Monday, second-year Denver coach Michael Malone was 0-5 against the Kings, who fired him in December 2014 after he appeared to set a foundation for rebuilding. He said there was no extra incentive.
“It’s another game,” he said. “The whole me being the former coach in Sac – we haven’t beaten them since I got here, so that’s in the back of my mind. It would be nice to beat them one time. Not because they let me go, but because we’ve got 20 games to go and we want to be a playoff team.”