DeMarcus Cousins was so good Thursday night in Golden 1 Center, so dominant in his old palace, the Kings basketball operations staffers must have been tempted to give him the game ball.
Inside, outside. Offense, defense. On the boards, with the pass. The combustible All-Star center, who was traded to New Orleans Pelicans in February, even gave new meaning to the term, “comeback victory.”
He came back, all right.
He was cheered, he was booed, he was emotional.
He won’t be forgotten, that’s for sure.
But about these Kings? Is there a silver lining for the group that ran past the Pelicans like a Maserati in the opening half and then appeared to be trudging through a playground of mud in the deciding moments?
Kings coach Dave Joerger spoke before the game about his personnel dilemma. The plan is to use a 10-man rotation, blending veterans with the talented youngsters and wait for the most effective combinations to materialize. Well, Bogdan Bogdanovic might force his coach to accelerate the evaluation period.
In his regular-season homecourt debut, the Serbian guard looked more like a veteran than a rookie adjusting to a new league, a new culture and a new lifestyle. As the Pelicans reclaimed the lead and threatened to break it open early in the fourth, Bogdanovic introduced himself to the hometown crowd with an impressive array of drives, jumpers and entry passes.
With the Kings trailing 98-91, he elevated near the foul line as if preparing to shoot, and instead dropped off a pass to a rolling Kosta Koufos for a bucket and a free throw. Two possessions later he sprinted the length of the court, dribbled between his legs, crossed over his defender, then finished with a beautiful finger roll. He also pulled up for a 3-pointer, swiped a defensive rebound and was wide open for a 3 when De’Aaron Fox drove into a cluster of defenders and failed to convert the layup.
The two guards are clearly developing a chemistry, as was evident when Bogdanovic immediately approached his 19-year-old teammate to discuss the critical possession.
“I can talk to him and tell him about the mistakes I made,” said Bogdanovic, 25, with a smile, “and hope he can learn without having to make those mistakes.”
Though Fox shot poorly (4 of 13), he contributed five assists and a couple of his confounding, stutter-step drives. Youngsters Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield and Justin Jackson had their moments, mostly on the offensive end. Learning the nuances of pick-and-roll defense is a confounding experience for most NBA rookies, even the most gifted ones.
“The first half we were getting stops,” Fox said, “and when teams get stops, you really share the ball, you score, you just continue to get more stops. Second half, we weren’t getting stops and then we couldn’t score. It just shows us how we need to close a game and keep a lead.”
On another night against a lesser team, the Kings might have clung to the momentum and strutted out of their home building with a victory. But as the Pelicans picked away, narrowing the deficit in the second half, the more this outcome had Boogie’s massive palms all over it. You could feel it, you could see it, and though Zach Randolph and Koufos combined for 21 points and 17 boards, the Kings could do nothing to stop it.
Cousins’ stat line entering the game was familiar and typically gaudy. Through the Pelicans’ first four games, the 6-foot-10 veteran – who is listed as a power forward when Anthony Davis is in the lineup – averaged 31.0 points (second in the league), 12.0 rebounds (fifth), and for those still monitoring his behavior, was hit with one technical that was rescinded and a $25,000 fine for cursing at a Grizzlies fan in Memphis.
The main problem confronting the Pelicans as they arrived in Sacramento is the familiar one: Their medical bills would bankrupt a middle class family of five. This week’s health care casualty is Davis, who sat out the game with soreness in his surgically repaired left knee but is listed as day-to-day.
The allure of the Pelicans, of course, remains the pairing of two of the league’s most talented big men in an era when teams are consumed by pace-and-space and forever in search of the next exceptional stretch-four.
The issue for the Pelicans on this particular Thursday night, of course, was how Cousins would react during his first appearance in the G1C in an opponent’s jersey. He was cheered during introductions, and again during a video tribute during a timeout in the first quarter. As the fans cheered, the veteran waved and tapped his chest in appreciation.
But then the game became a tussle, the Pelicans grabbed the lead and Cousins was treated like every other visiting star – he was booed when the ball was in his hands and the game was on the line.
“It was pretty emotional,” he said later. “I was super nervous coming in. The anticipation was through the roof. I really couldn’t wait for the ball to go up and actually get to the basketball part. I have nothing but love for this city. I came here as a kid, left as a man. Once the game went our way, them being young guys, they don’t really know how to handle those situations yet. We knew we could get them.”
Score one for Cousins. Now it’s back to the kids.