In these days of tule fog that rises from the dampness of the earth to darken our outlooks, it’s important to appreciate any patch of blue from above, especially when the ray of light comes down on the only major-league professional sports team for miles around.
We saw the possible Tuesday night when the Kings beat Utah 114-106 and looked like the playoff team many people around here predicted.
After losing in Mexico City, Houston and Oklahoma City, the Kings came home to the familiar fog zone of California’s interior and found clarity in the simplicity and beauty of the game:
They got easy shots and made them. They kept the other guys from scoring more than they did. And, every once in awhile, they reminded folks why they watch.
Rajon Rondo freshened their memories midway through the third quarter, when he picked up a loose ball deep in Utah’s end and sprinted up the floor. Rudy Gay and Omri Casspi flew alongside, left and right. Utah’s Trey Burke sought to stop the advance at midcourt, only to spin sideways in the trailing wind of Hurricane Rondo, who dribbled around his back to his right hand again, and zipped a pass to Rudy on the left.
It was OK. It wasn’t my top favorite.
Rajon Rondo, Kings guard, on his crowd-pleasing assist for a Rudy Gay dunk
Gay’s ensuing dunk triggered a sonic boom inside Sleep Train Arena.
“It was OK,” Rondo said with a smile breaking of the wrap-around dish he cooked up for Rudy. “It wasn’t my top favorite.”
Asked to rate it, Rondo said: “I’d give that one a low three. It wasn’t much. I just tried to get Trey to bite on the wrap-around, behind-the-back pass. Then a touch pass to Rudy, and he finished. If they don’t finish those plays, then it’s not an assist. It’s not a highlight.”
Saner voices in town have reminded us during the Kings’ early-season struggles that they really could be a good team, possibly playoff caliber. They’re only three games out of a playoff spot, and they’ve played more than a third of their 23 games without their best player, DeMarcus Cousins, and they are 1-7 in those affairs.
Coach George Karl pointed out that 15 of their first 22 games were against teams with winning records. Karl and others have insisted their 8-15 record deceives in other ways, that it masks the true look of a team that has played well a high percentage of the time.
“Come to the film room,” Karl said at his postgame news conference. “Watch us play, and show me where it’s really bad basketball.”
If Siskel and Ebert reviewed the Jazz film, they would have given major thumbs up to Gay. In his critique, Karl said, “That’s the most bounce I thought I’ve seen in Rudy all year.” Gay scored 23 points. Eight of his 10 field goals came from within six feet of the basket, five on assists from Rondo, including that 100-decibel dunk on the “low-three” pass from one of the more severe self-critics in the house.
Rudy called Rajon “a magician,” which is true, but one who will go upside your head if you’re not up for the trick.
“One thing about Rondo, you always have to have your hands up,” Gay said, “because if you don’t, he’ll hit you in the head with the ball. He’ll tell you that.”
Any discussion of the Kings as playoff contenders must include Cousins’ health. Seven of the games he has missed were because of Achilles’ and back injuries. Talk about the great sports metric of “wins above replacement.” If you project the Kings’ 7-8 record with Cousins over the 23 games they’ve played, they’d be just short of 11 victories and in a playoff spot.
People don’t understand how hard that is.
George Karl, Kings coach, on DeMarcus Cousins’ nightly output
Of course, nobody’s health can be taken for granted. It’s just that Cousins’ is put on public display just about every time he runs up the floor. It hurts sometimes just to watch, like with that twisting reverse layup he made to begin the second half against Utah. It had you reaching for the Advil.
“I tell him all the time, ‘You’re probably at a stage of your career, and maybe life, that, like me – if I woke up without pain, I’d be dead,’ ” Karl said.
Karl estimated NBA starters play 2,500 minutes each season. He called it a “physically damaging and mentally fatiguing scenario,” made more so “when you have the responsibility to deliver 25 and 12 every night,” approximately the 23 points and 12 rebounds Cousins had against the Jazz.
“People don’t understand how hard that is,” Karl said.
They would if they had Utah’s Derrick Favors and Trevor Booker and their NBA ilk shoving them in their aching back every night, Cousins’ nightly reality.
All Kings fans understand now is this is a team that at some point needs to go on a tear if it’s going to play some extra games in April, and there’s no reason the Kings can’t make it happen.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Gay said, with the Jazz down, the Knicks in town Thursday and the Rockets coming around Tuesday. “We got one.”