For his first five seasons, this time of year always was disheartening for DeMarcus Cousins.
While other teams were driving toward the playoffs, he was trying to finish the regular season strong before seeing how the Kings would recover from another losing season.
After the Kings stumbled into this season’s All-Star break with eight losses in 10 games, Cousins appeared headed for more disappointment.
But Cousins rejects the possibility of another non-playoff season. And since the All-Star break, he’s playing as if he’s on a mission, posting his second consecutive game with at least 30 points as the Kings beat the Denver Nuggets 114-110 Tuesday night at Pepsi Center.
Cousins finished with 39 points and nine rebounds, but his defense saved the Kings, who blew a 17-point lead.
The Kings improved to 24-31, still within striking distance of a playoff berth, thanks to Cousins’ determination.
“It’s just been tough,” Cousins said. “The team’s been though a lot; there’s been a lot of ups and downs. It seems like people are giving up on the team, but I’m the complete opposite of it. I think we have a great chance. I still believe in trying to make a push.”
Cousins led the Kings’ push to a third consecutive win. In the final minute, the All-Star made two defensive plays to thwart Denver’s comeback.
With the score 107-107, Cousins found himself defending the Nuggets’ quick point guard, D.J. Augustin. Cousins got low enough to steal the ball with 50.9 seconds to play and was fouled. Cousins made both free throws to give the Kings a two-point lead.
Then with the Kings ahead 112-110, Cousins blocked Darrell Arthur’s layup attempt with 3.6 seconds to seal the victory.
“The biggest thing was trying to get a stop down the stretch,” Cousins said. “The game came down to a game of stops and I think we did that as a team.”
In two games since the All-Star break, both against Denver, Cousins is averaging 38 points, 14.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
“I think Cuz has done a great job of figuring out how to move himself around the court instead of just being in one place,” Kings coach George Karl said. “He made some threes early in the third quarter, can play at the elbow and actually is a (darn) good passer; he’s a great rebounder. There’s not much he doesn’t do on the basketball court well.”
The Kings need Cousins to be at his best to have any chance of moving up in the standings. Sacramento is 3 1/2 games behind the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Entering Tuesday, Cousins was averaging 29.9 points in wins compared to 24.5 points in losses. It might be unrealistic to expect Cousins to have to score 30-plus points a night to keep the Kings in the playoff hunt.
But Cousins is willing to accept that challenge and will try to maintain his all-around dominance.
“Of course I would like to,” he said. “I can’t determine every game, but I’m coming out with the same mindset, same type of focus. I’m doing whatever it takes to help this team win, so if that’s what it takes, I’m trying to do it.”
After facing the Kings for the second consecutive game, Denver coach Michael Malone said his team has “no answer” for Cousins, and his players would agree.