Sacramento Kings

Kings’ defensive effort is clear, but Kawhi Leonard, Spurs spoil Golden 1 Center debut

These new Kings that try to defend and not rely solely on offense under coach Dave Joerger have made an impression on San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“Coach Joerger’s . . . got them playing defense after one game already the way they played defense in Memphis,” Popovich said. “That’s because he knows what he’s doing, and it’s a tribute to those guys to pick that up and jump in and buy in all of a sudden.”

The Spurs, however, are steeped in a culture that knows how to ratchet up defense the way the Kings hope to become known for. It also doesn’t hurt to have Kawhi Leonard, the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

The Kings fell to the Spurs 102-94 Thursday night in the first regular-season game at Golden 1 Center. It wasn’t the ideal way to christen the new arena in the standings, but the effort was after fans became accustomed to lackluster efforts, especially on defense, in recent seasons.

So while there was no joy in losing, there was optimism in the energy the Kings showed to make the game tough rather than fold once the Spurs upped the intensity.

“As competitors, you never want to say ‘You played hard but you lost,’ ” Joerger said. “But I liked a lot of the things I saw tonight. I thought we ran out of gas a bit.”

The Kings remained active defensively most of the night, but their turnovers (16, for 23 San Antonio points) and poor shooting (40 percent for the game) were too much to overcome.

Still, the Kings like the identity they are developing.

“This is the team we are,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “Come out, try to defend and be the guys to hit first. And once we hit, keep hitting.”

But the Spurs can take a punch and counterpunch with the best. Thursday was no different after San Antonio (2-0) withstood a strong start by the Kings and wore Sacramento down in the second half.

The Kings were doomed by the third quarter when they missed 14 of their 17 shots and committed six turnovers.

The Kings managed just 14 points, and Leonard displayed his brilliance on both ends of the floor, including four steals – two that would be better described as bullying because Leonard reached in an snatched the ball away from Kings guard Ben McLemore.

Leonard finished with 30 points, five assists and five steals.

“Kawhi, he was ridiculous as usual,” Popovich said. “He took two away in a row and said ‘Give me it’ and just grabbed it. He just grabbed it and took it twice in a row. I don’t see many people doing that.”

The offense found it tough to get anyone other than Cousins going, once the defense picked up. Rudy Gay had 17 points, but made only three of his 10 shots.

Guard Ty Lawson said the Kings have to avoid falling into the habit of watching Cousins go to work and not moving to create more scoring chances. Joerger said he has to do a better job of getting Gay better looks, along with Arron Afflalo.

Cousins had 37 points and 16 rebounds to lead Sacramento (1-1). Cousins said the spirit of the team was good. They understand their mistakes, he said, and are ready for Saturday’s game against Minnesota.

“I consider this a good loss, and I know everybody else in here feels the same way. Coach feels the same,” Cousins said. “It’s on to the next one. Tonight was a winnable game, and the next one is. If we play this way the remainder of the season, we’ll be fine.”

Someone who agrees with Cousins is Popovich.

“If they sustain that (defense), that’s going to be a good basketball team,” Popovich said. “You can see (Joerger’s) stamp on it already, defensively.”

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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