The Kings seem to begin every night as if they need an extra 15 minutes to warm up. That’s usually enough time for the opposing starting lineup to find a good rhythm on offense.
It happened again Friday night, as the Houston Rockets jumped out to an 18-4 lead before the Kings turned to their second unit to make the game competitive. The bench carried the starters most of the night, but it wasn’t enough as the Kings dropped their fourth game in a row, 116-110, at Sleep Train Arena.
The Kings’ bench outscored the starters 70-40 and dwarfed the production of Houston’s bench, which compiled 12 points. But the Kings couldn’t overcome the dominance of James Harden, who totaled 43 points and 13 assists, their stretches of bad offense or their inability to slow the Rockets down from the perimeter.
“The bench came in and got juiced and played the game at a high level for an extended period of time,” coach George Karl said. “But the hole we dug, we might’ve just ran out of gas.”
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Trailing by 11 points at halftime, the Kings started the second half with their starting five of Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, James Anderson, Rudy Gay and Kosta Koufos – and saw the deficit swell to 20 points via a 16-7 run by the Rockets.
While the starting unit looked lethargic, the second unit of Darren Collison, Omri Casspi, Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein and Seth Curry provided a spark. Collison and Casspi led the Kings with 22 points each – Casspi on 8-of-10 shooting – while Collison contributed a team-high nine assists.
The reserves led a 19-2 run beginning late in the third quarter that cut Houston’s lead to 87-86. But the Kings never regained the lead, though they finished out the game leaning heavily on their reserves. Gay, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, and Koufos were the only starters to play in the fourth.
“We just had no sense of urgency to start the game, to start the second half,” Casspi said. “It felt like every time we made a push and got back into it, (the Rockets) made a tough three or an open three, got a loose ball. We just can’t get over the hump.”
Every Kings starter finished with a negative plus/minus ratio, while every bench player had a positive plus/minus. Ben McLemore scored 11 points off the bench, while rookie Curry sparked the crowd with two three-pointers and finished with eight points.
“Some games it’s going to be like that; some games the first team’s going to do a good job of holding their lead,” Collison said. “We (the bench) just did what we’re supposed to do.”
Trying to figure out why the Kings keep starting out slow is a major issue. Part of the problem could be that with DeMarcus Cousins missing a third straight game with a strained right Achilles’, the starting lineup was different for the third consecutive game. Rondo and Gay are the only Kings to start every game this season.
Meanwhile, a Kings defense that has struggled was hardly better against the undermanned Rockets. Even with main inside presence Dwight Howard out, Houston shot 56 percent in the first half and finished at 48.8 percent for the game. The Rockets did much of their damage in the second half from three-point range, making 10 of 23 attempts.
“The first half we did a good job of covering the three and didn’t cover the layup,” Karl said. “The second half we covered the layup and didn’t cover the three. It’ll be an interesting film to watch.”
The Kings don’t have much time to make corrections with the Warriors coming to Sleep Train Arena on Saturday night. Collison said he did think the Kings’ defensive effort was better Friday than in previous games, but the result was familiar.
“We’re searching right now,” Collison said. “This is not a good time right now for us, but it’s part of the season. You’re going to have good times and bad times. Right now we’re searching, but I feel like we’re going to be just fine.”