Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged off his performance, saying it was the “same as every night,” but his coaches and teammates knew there was something different about him.
Maybe he was inspired by the criticism. Maybe it was the reported trade talks that suggested the team was shopping for a better rebounder. Or maybe he was motivated by the challenge of facing one of the most physically imposing players in the game. Whatever it was, it brought out the best in him on a night when his team needed nothing less.
Cauley-Stein produced one of his most impressive efforts of the season in a 112-102 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night at Golden 1 Center. He scored 14 points, snatched 14 rebounds, dished out five assists and blocked two shots, outplaying Detroit big man Andre Drummond in every way.
“Whew, that was major,” Kings rookie Harry Giles III said. “I told him before the game, go out there and be a dog. Go be you and go make people believe — let them know who you are — and that’s what he did.”
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He did it against Drummond, a 6-foot-11, 279-pound behemoth who outweighs him by nearly 40 pounds. Drummond averages 16.7 points and leads the league with 14.9 rebounds per game. He has grabbed 20 or more rebounds eight times this season.
A few days ago, Drummond grabbed 18 rebounds against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz. Against Cauley-Stein and the Kings, he finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and a season-high seven turnovers. A good deal of that damage was done after Cauley-Stein went to the bench with his team leading by 19 midway through the third quarter.
“Just group rebounding, boxing out, putting a body on somebody,” Cauley-Stein said.
Kings coach Dave Joerger said his team emphasized “gang rebounding,” but much of the credit belonged to Cauley-Stein.
“He was fresh and I thought he was energetic,” Joerger said. “He ran the floor. A lot of times you don’t get credit for this, but he runs the floor. ... A lot of times when Willie is running that hard, he brings people in and opens up the 3-point line, so he’s been doing a lot of positive things for us.”
Cauley-Stein, who could become a restricted free agent this summer, recorded his 16th double-double of the season and his third in the past four games. He’s averaging 13.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in his fourth NBA season — all career highs — but has been criticized for being a poor rim protector and an inconsistent rebounder.
Adding to those frustrations, he struggled to finish around the basket in the previous five games as defenses made adjustments to prevent him from getting to the rim. He made just 24 of 59 field-goal attempts over that stretch, a rate of 40.6 percent.
“He looked like himself a little bit,” Joerger said. “At different points in the season you can get worn down and he gets knocked off his line a little. I thought he was stronger to the rim tonight and he just had a little bit more pop to him. That’s what we’re looking for from him and he did a terrific job.”
In the past, Cauley-Stein has had trouble against opposing big men with more mass. On Dec. 16, Dallas Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan grabbed 23 rebounds against the Kings. On Dec. 19, Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams had 20 points and 23 rebounds. On Jan. 1, Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic had 24 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and five blocked shots.
Cauley-Stein didn’t think his effort this time was out of the ordinary.
“Same as every night, just play hard and everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “I come the same way every game.”
His teammates saw something different.
Giles, who came off the bench to post 14 points, four rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists, said he could see Cauley-Stein’s determination early in the game and pointed it out to teammate Frank Mason III.
“I just saw it. I sensed it. I saw the way he was attacking,” Giles said. “I said, ‘Frank, man, he (is) attacking them rebounds, especially against somebody like (Drummond). He’s a stat stacker. That’s what he is. That’s a big dude.”