Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein walked over to the team’s bench with a little over 4 minutes left in the first quarter, his chest heaving, his face dripping with sweat and a smile stretched across his face.
There were more than 40 minutes remaining in the game, but his work was all but done. Cauley-Stein dominated the opening minutes against No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton, helping the Kings race to an insurmountable lead in a 122-105 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“Willie really set the tone for the first five or six possessions,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “He led us tonight, especially on the defensive end, and everything else picked up after that.”
The Kings (12-11) amassed a 35-point lead over the Suns (4-20) and quickly turned their attention to the rest of a four-game trip that will take them to Cleveland on Friday, Indianapolis on Saturday and Chicago on Monday.
Sacramento moved above .500 at this point in a season for the first time since 2004-05, when the Kings finished 50-32. In 2005-06, when they made their last playoff appearance, they went 10-13 to start the season.
“I just think that’s big for us,” said Kings guard Buddy Hield, who led the team with 20 points in 18 minutes. “We’re a young group (and this gives us) confidence moving forward to the next game so we can go out there with the right mindset and be able to do the same thing we did here.
“Come out and get stops, get deflections, get in the passing lanes, get layups and hit open shots. That’s the mindset all season. We have a tough road trip and we’re trying to capitalize.”
The Kings led 36-9 at the end of the opening period, the most lopsided first quarter and the fewest points the Kings have allowed in a first quarter since the franchise started tracking such records in 1954. It all started with Cauley-Stein, who recorded four steals in the first eight minutes while playing denial defense on Ayton.
“(Cauley-Stein) was just aggressive defensively,” Fox said. “He was up denying, he was able to push catches out, and when he’s denying, as a guard, you don’t want to have an easy pass, so as soon as he did that our guards started pressuring and he was able to get his hands on a lot of balls, and we were able to get steals and get out in transition early.”
By the time the Suns realized what was happening, it was too late.
“This is an elite team when it comes to transition,” Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “They really have athletes that can run the floor one through five, from Fox through Cauley-Stein, and we knew that.”
Cauley-Stein finished with six points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals in 19 minutes before resting most of the second half.
“It was good,” Cauley-Stein said before leaving the locker room. “We just came out real strong and put a lot of pressure on them early.”
Fox had 16 points and seven assists in 27 minutes. None of the other starters logged more than 23 minutes.
“I think it was good for us,” Fox said. “We’re on this road trip for about a week and (it’s good to) get the first game out of the way. Our guys were able to rest, everybody’s playing and the energy is up, so (we’re about) to go to Cleveland in good spirits.”
The Kings were without rookie big man Marvin Bagley III, who missed his second consecutive game due to back spasms. Bagley will be listed as day-to-day.
The Suns were missing Devin Booker (hamstring) and T.J. Warren (ankle), their two leading scorers.
Seven players scored in double figures for the Kings, five of them off the bench. Harry Giles III had 13 points in 10 minutes. Troy Williams and Kosta Koufos scored 11 points apiece.
Sacramento shot 53.6 percent and made 11 of 24 from 3-point range while holding Phoenix to 43.7-percent shooting from the field and 12-of-43 shooting from beyond the arc. The Kings forced 21 turnovers and recorded 13 steals.
“When we’re able to pick up our defense, I think it’s a whole different team,” Fox said. “It’s a whole different aspect of the game that just goes our way. ... That’s one thing that we need to really get consistent on, just the effort that we put on our defense every night.
“Offensively, for the most part, it’s always there. The way we play, we get up and down the court, so we’re going to get the shots that we want. Sometimes the shots aren’t falling, but if you can lean on your defense, you’re going to be fine.”
Kings coach Dave Joerger couldn’t have agreed more.
“We were locked in,” he said. “We ... did a much better job of defending, which makes it a lot easier to run. ... Just getting after them defensively and kind of jumping on them, and then we stayed aggressive. I thought we were the more aggressive team early, but it’s not about them. We were pretty locked in and focused. It was one of those nights for us.”