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KINGS 102, DALLAS 95: Game story, Game notes, Photo slideshow.

Box score
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Finally, a defensive diamond in the rough.

The Mavericks scored 17 fourth-quarter points on Sunday night, when they could only hit 6 of 24 shots (25 percent) against a Kings team that entered ranked 26th in the league in opponent's field-goal percentage at 47.2 percent. The mark was close to a Kings opponent's season-low for a quarter (15 from San Antonio in the first quarter on Nov. 16) and - more importantly - was a more-obvious sign of a subtle change since Kenny Natt took over on Dec. 15.

The improved defense.

It's not like Natt was hiding his intentions. He has benched Beno Udrih largely for defensive reasons, played Kenny Thomas with the same hopes of helping on that end and had most of his rotations based on playing guys who are willing to protect the rim. And while some fans - and even some media folks - say the team is worse off with Reggie Theus gone, they have become a better defensive team.

To wit...

In 24 games with Theus (6-18 record, 33.3 winning percentage) - 106 points per game allowed, 47.9 percent shooting overall; 43 percent from three-point range (average of 7.6 made per game).

In 14 games with Natt (3-11 record, 27.2 winning percentage) - 103.9 points per game, 45.9 percent shooting overall, 32.7 percent from three-point range (average of 5.07 made per game).

And the commentary before Sunday's game from a guy who has been around a bit in Bobby Jackson.

"I've never experienced anything like this," he told the Bee's Ailene Voisin. "Except maybe my rookie year, where it's all about offense, and guys don't try to play defense. Hopefully that changes."

As the numbers prove, it actually has.

BENO BREAKS OUT

Pardon the hyperbole in that headline, but it's pretty close to accurate given the current context.

His 10 first-quarter points were a confidence boost for a guy who hasn't had any in weeks, and it was enough to convince Natt to not send him to the bench to be forgotten like he has been so often recently. He finished strong as well, with his late layup giving the Kings a much-needed cushion.

His 16 points was his highest total since Dec. 12 (17 points at Lakers), and his six assists was his highest number in that category since Dec. 13. Udrih had two threes in the first quarter, something he had done in a whole game just twice this season (two at the Lakers on Dec. 12 and three vs. Phoenix on Nov. 14).

Udrih and Natt had a long conversation after Saturday's practice that I happened to notice, with the two both seated and seeming to have a cordial and productive chat for some 20 minutes. Natt, who reported that it was a good discussion, said he was thrilled to see his point guard respond in this way.

"I just told Beno that that's the kind of effort that we need from him," Natt said. "I told him him (on Saturday) at practice that I was going to stay with him and just continue to give him an opportunity to play his way through. He showed a lot more aggressiveness and effort tonight overall so hopefully we're on the right track there."

TRADE TRACKER

It seems like every team the Kings face recently could potentially become their trade partner.

It was Chicago with its need for a Brad Miller-type big man, then Miami and its similar need and desire to deal Shawn Marion, and now Dallas. The Mavs could use Miller as well, and the history of last summer should not be forgotten here.

The Kings were offered Brandon Bass and Jerry Stackhouse for Ron Artest when Josh Howard was the guy they really wanted. Now, it sounds as if Howard is far more available than he was then. What's more, the reports of a possible three-team deal with Dallas, Charlotte and Oklahoma City reminded me of a recent conversation in which I was told by a league source that the Kings were part of talks involving the Thunder (with Earl Watson in the equation) and a third team. Don't be surprised if something eventually goes down that is a variation of some of these pieces and involves the Kings.

And as a reminder, Miller isn't the only one being shopped here. The Kings are open to almost all possibilities and John Salmons - who is averaging a career-high 19 points per game on 47.6 shooting and a career-high 39.6 percent from three-point range - is near Miller on the list of available players.

Final thoughts...

* Francisco Garcia, who was phenomenal in a breakout game of his own (17 points on 7 of 10 shooting), had the wisest comment of the night as far as his team is concerned.

"It is only one win," he said. "We have been there before where we won one (game) and then lost five or six (in a row). We just need to keep improving and we need to show ourselves - not everyone else, but ourselves - (that) we can do it."

* Donte' Greene has had one quality game and one mediocre outing with the Reno Bighorns.

He is playing big minutes but has come off the bench in both games. While he will play at least three games up the road, it sounds as if it's no guarantee he will be headed down I-80 back to Sacramento at that point. Depending on how things go, Greene could hit the road with the Bighorns on an extended stay.

Ailene made the trip up there this weekend and has this piece on Greene. On a less local note, it sounds like there are some Syracuse fans who hold some bitterness over his decision to leave for the NBA after just one season - especially if he wasn't ready to make an immediate impact in the pros. The inspiration for that thesis is in this story.

There have been plenty of eyes on Greene besides those of Voisin, with assistant coach Shareef Abdur-Rahim, director of player development Fat Lever, and assistant general manager/team general counsel Jason Levien making the trek to watch him play. Greene and Levien are quoted in this Reno Gazette-Journal recap of Greene's debut.
- Sam Amick

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