At this time of year, in this kind of game, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Kings had been more focused Saturday on the postgame flight than the court.
After all, the Kings were in their fifth game in seven nights after having just been blasted by New Orleans, with no playoff berth in sight. Plus, too many wins might dim the team’s prospects for a high draft pick.
Then the Kings scored just 18 points in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves, finding themselves 16 points down.
But thanks to a boost from the bench and some mental fortitude, the Kings rallied to defeat the Timberwolves 123-117. The win ended a two-game losing streak for the Kings who are 6-14 since the All-Star break when DeMarcus Cousins was traded.
“Just keep attacking,” said Kings guard Ty Lawson. “It is mental. We had a game (Friday), probably emotional for some, but that’s how we are. We battle back, we still play hard and we were able to get the win.”
The emotional part of Friday was seeing Cousins for the first time since he was traded to New Orleans, and then being thumped by 28 points.
Early on it looked as if the Kings would suffer a similar fate Saturday. While the Kings are sitting veterans to give their young players more minutes, the Timberwolves are trying to win every game, even if the playoffs aren’t an option this season.
“It’s a struggle playing five games in seven nights,” said Kings coach Dave Joerger. “This was tough; it’s a good test for our young guys to mentally fight through.”
It was Lawson (21 points, 11 assists), Langston Galloway (17 points), and Arron Afflalo (16 points) who led the second unit and helped the Kings break through any mental barriers with their energy.
It was Afflalo’s first game back after being away from the team for personal reasons for three games.
“We got some fresh legs,” Joerger said. “You know it was good to see Arron back in there; he’s very steadying for us. … We made a lot of shots tonight.”
The Kings (30-47) scored at least 32 points in each of the final three quarters and held off a late surge by the Timberwolves. Sacramento shot a season-high 56.4 percent from the field and made 11 of 19 3-pointers.
Buddy Hield was the only starter to attempt or make a 3-pointer. He made four 3-pointers and the rest came from the bench with four by Afflalo and three by Galloway.
“I commend our second group coming in and giving us the energy, because we really needed it,” said Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein. “Especially on a back-to-back and the stretch that we’re on. That was much needed for us because it could have easily went the other way and got real ugly.”
The only two starters to score in double figures were two of the younger Kings. Hield scored 22 points in what Joerger called his “best game as a pro.”
Joerger said Hield, the rookie from Oklahoma, is expanding his skills beyond scoring while learning to fit into the Kings’ system.
Cauley-Stein had 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Off the bench, Joerger said rookie George Papagiannis played his best game of the season, not because of stats, but because of his physical play and ability to free teammates by setting good screens.
Joerger believes the Timberwolves (30-45) are on the verge of being a playoff team next season, so beating them three of four times this season was important for his team’s mindset.
The teams split the series in the two games played after Cousins was traded.
“For where we are, feeling like maybe we’re a couple years where Minnesota was a couple years ago,” Joerger said. “And to beat them three out of four times is, as a Minnesotan, I’m very proud right now. … I’m just really proud of our guys.”
Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 32 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 26 points and 11 rebounds and Ricky Rubio had 11 points and 13 assists.