Nemanja Bjelica pumped his fist and pounded his chest. When the crowd roared with approval, he roared right back, expelling nearly a week’s worth of frustrations.
Bjelica overcame his recent struggles to key a critical third-quarter run and the Kings withstood a late charge, holding on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 121-110 on Friday night before a capacity crowd of 17,583 at Golden 1 Center.
“I was maybe too wild, but I couldn’t control my emotions,” Bjelica said.
Karl-Anthony Towns delivered a monster performance for Minnesota, finishing with 39 points and 19 rebounds, but the Kings (7-5) kept running while the Timberwolves (4-9) ran out of gas at the end of a five-game trip.
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Willie Cauley-Stein scored 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting for the Kings, who snapped a two-game losing streak. Iman Shumpert scored 17 points. De’Aaron Fox posted 16 points and 10 assists with no turnovers. Buddy Hield had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Then there was Bjelica, the 6-foot-10 power forward who spent his first three NBA seasons with the Timberwolves before signing with the Kings over the summer. Bjelica finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots and one fiery sequence in the second half that put the Kings in control.
“Before the game, I told you this game would be like every other game, but I was wrong,” Bjelica said. “Maybe I was too emotional, but I had to erase this (feeling) that I had in my stomach.”
Bjelica was coming off two sub-par shooting performances in losses to the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. He had just four points on 2-of-8 shooting in 21 minutes in an impossible matchup with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was then held scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes against the Raptors.
Those were uncharacteristic outings for Bjelica, who had averaged 22 points and 8.3 rebounds in the three previous games, making 24 of 44 field-goal attempts and 12 of 22 from 3-point range.
“He’s been a huge factor in our success, shooting the ball over the top of people,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said prior to the game. “He’s had a couple of tougher matchups. Antetokounmpo played him and (Toronto’s) Pascal Siakam, who’s playing very, very well. So you’re talking about 6-10 to 7-foot-1 guys who are very athletic and very long, and it gives him a little bit more of a problem getting shots off.
“I think he’s gotten frustrated by that in games and it’s bothered him a little bit, which you don’t see generally with a 30-year-old guy, but I think what that shows you is he cares. He’s passionate about being here, he wants to do well, he loves his teammates and he’ll get it figured out.”
He certainly did.
The Kings were clinging to a three-point lead when Bjelica came to life late in the third quarter. The barrage started with a 29-foot 3-pointer from the left wing. Bjelica then grabbed a defensive rebound at the other end of the floor, dribbled the ball up the right side and drained another 3-pointer from 27 feet away.
Suddenly, Bjelica was feeling it. Two possessions later, he drove from the top of the arc, spun inside and made a layup, giving the Kings an 88-79 lead with 2:13 to play in the third period.
“Sometimes it’s crazy,” Bjelica said. “I missed my first three (3-point attempts) and I was wide open. And then I took some crazy shots and I felt good.”
Bjelica’s emotional outburst brought the crowd to its feet and fired up his teammates.
“One of those bombs that he hit definitely changed the momentum of the game,” Fox said.
Sacramento’s lead grew to 15 before Minnesota battled back to cut the deficit to two on a 3-pointer by Anthony Tolliver with 4:31 to play, but that’s when exhaustion appeared to set in for the Timberwolves. While Towns was lumbering up and down the floor in the final minutes, the Kings kept running, quickly turning a 108-106 advantage into a nine-point lead in a span of 55 seconds.
“We just keep running,” Fox said. “Even if they score, we’re not worried about that. We’re getting the ball up and down the court, and that can definitely be kind of demoralizing (for) a team.”
Hield said the team’s second-half surge started with Bjelica.
“I think Belly gave us a huge spark,” Hield said. “He struggled in the past two games, but to see him make some shots and make some plays, especially against his former team, it’s always good to see that happen. We needed that spark from him.”