The NBA is a league of spurts, a season of increments. By the 10-game mark, a team’s flaws, strengths, tendencies and identities start to emerge. All of which brings us to the Kings.
This 6-4 Kings start? This is different. This is a mood swing of all mood swings, a mass of contradictions, a kickoff with plenty of controversy.
The opening weeks of the regular season have been the roller-coaster ride that starts smoothly, stalls in high places, continues with two screeching losses in Dallas and Memphis, then hits another high, inspiring note Saturday with a 94-91 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
The Kings arrived at Sleep Train Arena still hung over from the excruciating – and historical – meltdowns against the Mavericks and Grizzlies, and having squandered leads of 24 and 26 points, respectively. The good folks who routinely monitor such matters, who a decade ago provided glowing stats about the Kings’ scintillating passing and efficient, entertaining offense, spread very different news this time: The Kings became the first franchise in NBA history to drop consecutive games after leading by 18 or more points in the first period.
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The clincher – the kicker to the gut, really – was the blown coverage that allowed a wide-open Courtney Lee to score the controversial deciding layup for the Grizzlies with :00.3 seconds remaining.
“I protested the game on two grounds,” said Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro. “One, that (Lee) didn’t get the shot off in time. Two, we believe Ryan Hollins touched the ball on the inbound pass, which changed the trajectory, and should have ended the game. As badly as we played, the team still deserved to win.”
So the GM fights hard for his team. Good for him. So does the owner. Ditto. Vivek Ranadive said he spent much of the past two days presenting evidence and pleading with members of Rod Thorn’s office at NBA headquarters. But since the league doesn’t allow do-overs and had more trained eyes on the ball at officiating headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., than an optometrist sees on a weekday, the loss is a loss is a loss. Luckily for the Kings – and I say this in all sincerity – the Spurs brought their saddles and boots to town.
The beauty of the theory is this: If you can’t beat them, then learn from them. And if you can learn while beating them? The best of all scenarios. With the Spurs on a three-game win streak, there was no dozing in the seats or on the court on this night.
As usual, the champs played mind games, played a game within a game. This is like an old married couple who completes each other’s sentences and anticipates each other’s thoughts. On defense, they contest everything. On offense, they do everything. Catch. Shoot. Pass. They heave baseball passes to their sprinters, thread crosscourt passes between defenders, are masters at penetrating and delivering balls for layups, and accomplish most of this without coach Gregg Popovich having to call a play or raise a finger.
“They have a play-for-each-other mentality, a good-to-great mentality, and the ball never sticks,” noted Kings coach Michael Malone. “If you’re in constant rotations against this team and the ball’s living in your paint, that ball is going to be swung two or three different times to get a wide-open look.”
Closer to home, the Kings had managed a mere 12 assists against the Grizzlies. And for all the early-season emphasis on ball movement and a faster tempo, they entered the weekend ranked dead last with 17.5 assists per game and were 26th in turnovers. NBA scouts take note of their improving talent level but also cite an offense that stagnates and too often reverts to one-on-one play.
But getting back to that roller-coaster. For the better part of four quarters, the Kings ran and rode with the Spurs, overcame early foul trouble by DeMarcus Cousins, received a late boost by Omri Casspi, a strong performance by Rudy Gay and a cat-quick drive by Darren Collison with 28 seconds remaining.
This time, they held on.
This time, they played like a team.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.