The players pumped their fists. The fans sprang to their feet. The lady with the “Coach Dave Joerger for President” sign danced in the aisles.
And Joerger himself? After 48 hours of turmoil, he thrust his arms into the air. He waved goodbye to the Oklahoma City coaching staff. Then he walked off the floor toward the Kings’ locker room, where he told his players he was proud of the way they persevered to beat the Thunder 117-113 on Monday night at Golden 1 Center.
“I love our team,” Joerger said. “We get along great, we’ve got their attention, they’re playing hard (and) they like each other.”
The Kings seemed to rally around each other and their coach two days after a Yahoo Sports story, citing unnamed league sources, suggested the team’s front office might part ways with Joerger over philosophical differences. Sources said the organization was growing frustrated with Joerger’s distribution of playing time and his tendency to play veterans over developing young players, specifically his “handling” of Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac quickly expressed “full support and confidence” in Joerger, who has implemented an exciting uptempo offense while engineering a dramatic turnaround a season after the team went 27-55. On Monday night, two of the team’s emerging young stars added their voices to the chorus in support of their coach.
“You’ve seen the improvement for our team and he’s definitely been a huge help in the way we’re playing this year,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said.
Shooting guard Buddy Hield agreed.
“I didn’t see no reason why people should talk like that,” Hield said. “We’re doing great. ... You’ve got to give respect where respect is due, and he’s been doing a great job.”
Joerger, sporting a blue suit with a pinstriped shirt and two days of stubble on his face, received a rousing ovation from the crowd before the game.
The Kings (9-8) started fast, outscoring the Thunder 14-2 over the first 2:36. They led 37-24 at the end of the first quarter and carried a 69-56 advantage into the halftime break.
The Thunder (10-6) battled back to tie the game late in the second half and took an 83-81 lead on two free throws by Paul George late in the third quarter. The Kings reestablished a 10-point lead on a basket by Bagley with 2:23 to play in the fourth quarter.
Two long 3-pointers by George in the final minute helped Oklahoma City cut the deficit to two with 6.6 seconds remaining, but two free throws by Fox secured the victory for the Kings.
Hield scored 25 points and Iman Shumpert had 23, all in a red-hot first half. Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 16 points. Willie Cauley-Stein grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds and Bagley played a stellar second half after struggling in the first, finishing with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots, his first career double-double.
“Every night is something different and a new adventure for (Bagley),” Joerger said. “He learns something new and he’s a sponge, so what he’s really able to do is apply it later in the same game a lot of times.”
Russell Westbrook had 29 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, which had won 10 of its last 11 games. George had 27 points and nine rebounds.
Bagley said the speculation over Joerger’s job security was not a distraction for the team.
“We’re having fun,” Bagley said. “Everybody’s gelling together. We were just worried about winning this game. And that was the only thing on our mind.”
It was a much-needed victory for the Kings, who had lost five of their last seven games, and a meaningful win for Joerger.
“It was good, in this stretch especially, to get it at home,” Joerger said. “We really care about our fans. We’ve got great fans. I love it here. I loved listening to the ovation tonight. That was really cool. And to get the win over a very, very good team tonight is really gratifying.”