Eight different starting lineups later, some form of the phrase “we had no energy” is still being uttered by the Kings about their start to a game.
It happened again Saturday as the first quarter continues to baffle the Kings.
This time Sacramento trailed 14-0 four minutes into a 109-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center.
The Kings rallied from down 20 to pull within one at 102-101 with 1:43 to play, but got no closer.
The Kings tried a new starting lineup, going with Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein along with De’Aaron Fox, George Hill and Garrett Temple to face off against the big frontcourt of Milwaukee.
Cauley-Stein and Koufos have been good as a tandem off the bench, but never got it going to start Saturday. Cauley-Stein left the game in the second quarter with a lower back strain.
Kings coach Dave Joerger summed it up as a “disappointing night” and referenced energy – or lack thereof.
“We got off to a terrible start against a team that we needed to get off to a quick start against,” Joerger said. “They pushed us around the floor and we turned the ball over. We didn’t play with any energy.”
It should be clear to the Kings that slow starts usually translate to losses. They’ve trailed after the first quarter 15 times. They’ve won three of those games. And they’re 1-13 when trailing at halftime.
So why can’t the Kings start better? Energy isn’t a matter of talent. The Kings expect to have talent nightly, but as evidenced Saturday, many nights the energy is lacking and they do not look prepared to play.
Forward Vince Carter said the Kings need more focus to start games, which is part of the learning process for some of the young players.
“We’ve had some luck where we’ve been able to get back in some games and we’ve had some situations where we’ve had our doors blown off because of our slow starts,” Carter said. “Good teams, they jump on top of you, they don’t let you back in.”
Joerger benched the entire starting lineup with 8:50 left in the first quarter and the reserves kept the Kings competitive and rallied the team in the fourth.
“We won the last three quarters but that’s kind of a consolation prize,” Joerger said. “Going forward, we are trying to build ourselves up.”
That would be easier if the Kings weren’t knocked down with regularity.
These big, early deficits might give Sacramento the look of a team that competes hard until the end, but the Kings also benefit from opponents letting up with a big lead.
“We fight, sometimes we find enough energy to get back into the game like tonight, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” Carter said. “We have to bring the fight to teams each and every night. It’s a learning experience and understanding how our approach needs to be.”
The Kings are now 0-5 in the second of back-to-back games. Fatigue could be an excuse, but that can be dismissed when Sacramento’s second-oldest player, 36-year-old Zach Randolph, followed up his season-high 25 points and 13 rebounds in Friday’s win at Chicago with team highs of 22 points and seven rebounds off the bench the next night.
“We’ve just got to get off to a better start,” Randolph said. “It seems like (the starters always struggle) but we’re better than that. We can compete with anybody like we did tonight, just come out from the start, have a bunch of energy.”
The bench, again, had the energy for the Kings (7-16) as former starters like Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield have looked better outside the starting lineup.
Even Randolph, who had started every game this season, didn’t miss a beat with the second unit. Players off the bench seem to play with more freedom. Hield, who had 19 points and four assists Saturday, broke out of his shooting slump as a reserve.
Cauley-Stein became an offensive threat with the second unit, too.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks (12-9) with 33 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. His energy early was key to Milwaukee’s dominance.
The Kings are still searching for that consistent energy, regardless of who starts the game.