Ben McLemore is soft spoken in conversation, but he can answer a challenge.
Kings coach Michael Malone believed this was the scariest game of this four-game trip, because the Minnesota Timberwolves were without four starters.
Malone worried his team might not come out with the right focus, and for 24 minutes, he was right.
“I was not happy with the way we played at all,” Malone said. “We were very tentative against the zone; we were sloppy. I didn’t think we came ready to play, which was a concern of mine even before we left Sacramento.”
But after a blunt assessment by Malone at halftime, and a challenge to his guards to change things, the Kings responded, played as expected and disposed of the Timberwolves 113-101 on Saturday night at Target Center.
The Kings outscored Minnesota 36-25 in the third quarter to take a lead they would not relinquish in the fourth, thanks largely to the dominance of center DeMarcus Cousins and the aggressiveness of McLemore.
Cousins had 31 points and 18 rebounds, and McLemore scored a season-high 22 points, 13 coming in the pivotal third quarter.
It came as no surprise Cousins would have his way against Minnesota’s depleted frontcourt.
What the Kings needed was more from the perimeter, and Malone said he challenged his guards to attack the Timberwolves.
“I said, ‘They’re playing a zone. You guys are open, and you’re hesitating,’” Malone said. “‘You missed a few shots. So what? You’re open; shoot the ball.’ I give Ben McLemore a lot of credit because I think he took that to heart.”
McLemore did heed Malone’s words.
“Go out there, be aggressive and do what’s best for the team,” McLemore said of his second-half mentality. “Everybody knows that I have the confidence in me to go out there and play my game. That’s what I did. I spread the floor and shot the ball whenever I was open.”
McLemore also made sure to remind Malone he didn’t mention the nine rebounds he collected that matched his career high. Seven rebounds came after halftime.
“For Ben to get nine boards in 41 minutes is a testament to his willingness to do whatever it takes to help us a win a game,” Malone said. “I think everybody at home understands the improvement that Ben McLemore has made from last year to this year.”
McLemore spent too much of his rookie season settling for long jump shots. With his improved dribbling this season, McLemore is attacking the rim more. He’s also improved defensively and is willing to do the dirty work on the glass.
“I want to be a good rebounder,” McLemore said. “I know coach was stressing to go out there and help the bigs rebounding (Saturday), throughout the whole season, too, so I was trying to go out there and help them rebound. Cousins can’t get every rebound.”
It seemed as if Cousins got every rebound Saturday for the Kings (8-5).
He also rarely missed a shot against Minnesota (3-9). Cousins shot 11 for 15 from the field and 9 for 10 from the free throw line.
“Cousins is a load now,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. “I don’t know if there’s a better center in our league. The way he’s playing, he’s got his head screwed on straight. He seems to be very focused.”
Cousins found himself impressed with McLemore.
“He’s finding his confidence; he’s finding his touch,” Cousins said. “It’s a rough transition from your first to second year, but this is usually where guys find their stride, and I think Ben has found his. Hopefully, he continues on this path.”
Andrew Wiggins, the first pick in this year’s NBA draft, led the Timberwolves with a season-high 29 points.