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Cousins proves his worth on ‘D’ again; Kings win 4th in a row

There’s usually a caveat when discussing DeMarcus Cousins’ place as the NBA’s most dominant big man.

He’s the league’s best big man on offense. Pundits are quick to point out the impact the likes of DeAndre Jordan have on defense as a knock on Cousins’ stature in the game.

It’s not that Cousins cannot play defense, but when your team is known for being one of the NBA’s worst on defense during your career, it’s not a surprise pundits aren’t attaching defensive excellence to Cousins.

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A constant in the Kings’ four-game winning streak – as in Monday night’s 102-100 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at Golden 1 Center – has been a key late-game defensive play by Cousins.

Cousins blocked Joel Embiid’s attempt to win the game with a 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds to play. Embiid’s heave from 25-feet out after Cousins’ block was an airball.

“It was (a nice block),” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “Inititally you’re looking at it wondering if it was a foul. We’ve seen it and it didn’t seem like it was a foul.”

And with that, the Kings (14-17) have their longest winning streak of the season.

Cousins made his mark on offense, too. He scored a game-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks.

Cousins’ 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds to play gave the Kings the lead for good at 99-97.

But lately, Cousins has been making his mark on defense with blocks, steals and solid contesting of shots late in games.

“He’s really locked in doing a great job defensively, and talking about where guys should be and helping each other from the back line,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s always difficult as a big because you are going to switch everything else, but you put the biggest guy in the pick and roll – he ends up defensively being in a lot of pick and rolls and that’s not easy; that wears you out too (but) he did a great job down the stretch again.”

The Kings haven’t made it easy on themselves during their winning streak.

They’ve trailed in the fourth quarter of each game. That’s forced Sacramento to rely on defense to get back in games and precise execution on offense to escape with wins.

“We made a lot of mistakes tonight,” Cousins said. “I think we made this game hard on ourselves – 19 turnovers – I think I had five myself. We can’t have these type of games because this easily could have slipped away from us. But with that said, I’ll take the win of course.”

The fourth quarter continues to be Sacramento’s saving grace. The Kings outscored Philadelphia 32-23 in that period Monday, extending their streak of 30-point fourth quarters to four games.

Cousins said the Kings are understanding what their priorities must be if they want to continue to win.

“It’s not who can score the most points or highlights or whatever,” Cousins said. “But it’s us playing defense, us getting stops, us getting stops in a row. So I think guys are starting to buy in. Like I said, we’re on the right path but the scary thing is we’ve still got a lot of room for improvement.”

The buy-in process is always better when the team’s biggest name is with the program.

Joerger said Cousins’ defense lately has been a big reason for the winning streak.

He’s been absolutely fantastic,” Joerger said. “He’s playing at an incredibly high level, he’s been a great teammate. He’s one of the main reasons we’ve had some success here, and there’s certainly been some other guys, too.”

Rudy Gay returned from a six-game absence because of a strained right hip flexor to score 17 points, nine in the fourth quarter. Ty Lawson added 12 points and four assists off the bench.

Embiid led the Sixers (7-23) with 25 points. Ersan Ilyasova added 17 points.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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