It started with an alley-oop layup and ended with an alley-oop that was more of a throw-in than a dunk.
Willie Cauley-Stein wasn’t on the floor for the final 8.7 seconds after fouling out, but it didn’t matter. The game had already been decided.
The Kings’ fourth-year center scored a team-leading 23 points in a 119-110 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The win snapped Sacramento’s six-game skid against Utah and avenged a season-opening loss on Oct. 17, when the Jazz beat the Kings 123-117 at Golden 1 Center.
Cauley-Stein did a lot of that damage while being guarded by Rudy Gobert, a French center known as the “Stifle Tower” who is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
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Those credentials didn’t faze Cauley-Stein.
“I’m faster than him and more elusive, so I just play my game,” he said. “I’m the same size of him, so I’m not worried about his length. I try to give a lot of misdirection and get into his body so he can’t jump.”
Cauley-Stein scored on an array of shots, including layups, hooks and multiple alley-oops en route to an 11 of 15 night. He was also one of four Kings (10-8) with seven rebounds while also having two steals.
The majority of his scoring came in the first three quarters, but his last basket came with just over a minute left in a final period in which the Jazz (8-10) cut a 17-point deficit down to four in just over three minutes. But the Kings outscored the Jazz 9-4 in the final 1:56.
Cauley-Stein was proud of his team’s effort to hang on without taking their foot off the accelerator.
“You lose those games when you stop playing hard,” he said. “In the last five minutes you start trying to hold the ball and the next thing you know they hit three 3s. You try and stall out the game, you’re probably going to lose every time.”
Kings coach Dave Joerger was also pleased with how his team held on.
“It was a difficult fourth quarter for us. We kind of lost our composure a little bit,” Joerger said. “They pinned their ears back and got to the rim and Donovan Mitchell can score in bunches and he did. We’re really happy to get out of here with a win. It’s a tough place to play.”
Score in bunches is what Mitchell did. He scored 14 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter to help get the Jazz back into the game. He’s eager for the third meeting of the season Sunday at Golden 1 Center. He felt that “just a few mishaps” proved costly.
“They won the 50-50 balls and that’s the story of the game,” Mitchell said. “We play (Sacramento) next weekend and we’ll fix it.”
Seven Kings scored in double figures, including guard De’Aaron Fox, who scored 17 points while finding his teammates all night. For the second consecutive game, he finished with 13 assists, which ties for the second-highest total of his career.
Some of those assists went to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who got off to a slow start but scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Rather than talk about his numbers, Fox discussed how the Kings pulled out the victory despite committing five of their 11 turnovers in the final period.
“You’ve got to play through mistakes and I know I made mistakes in the fourth quarter, but when you’re playing hard you are able to get through it,” he said. “I think that’s what we did today.”
The NBA clears the schedule Thursday to observe the Thanksgiving holiday, then the Kings will get an extra day off to recover from holiday dinners before taking the short trip west to play the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, who have lost their last four games.
Sacramento will catch a Warriors squad on the second of a back-to-back for the hosts, who play the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. The Kings showed they were up to the challenge at Oracle Arena last season, winning both games in Oakland.
Having so many players who can step up can help the Kings continue their success.
“That’s the league now,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everybody’s got the ability to score. It’s the teams that trust each other. ... The more we care about each other, the more and more it’s going to be evident that’s why we’re winning.”