The Kings carry themselves differently when DeMarcus Cousins is on the court.
For all the criticism of Cousins, it’s hard to deny that the Kings, while not an elite team, have a chance to win every night with their All-Star in the lineup.
Cousins was back Saturday from a one-game suspension for a forearm to Al Horford’s head in Atlanta, and the Kings regained their defensive intensity in a 97-91 win over the Orlando Magic at Amway Center.
It was the Kings’ first road win this season and ended a two-game slide aided by Cousins’ absence Thursday in Miami.
The Kings put together perhaps their most complete defensive effort of the season, giving up a season low in points and holding the Magic to 41.3 percent shooting.
Cousins made his presence felt all over the court with 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks.
“I hate that I left my teammates hanging,” Cousins said. “A foolish mistake on my behalf. But we moved on from it, came in and got a win.”
Kings coach George Karl has trumpeted Cousins’ defense all season. Cousins has the ability to play against pick-and-rolls and to be in the right spot.
Karl said Cousins is a “top-five” paint protector.
“People never talk about his defense,” Karl said. “I thought in Miami we missed him at the defensive end of the court as much as we missed him at the offensive end of the court.”
When Cousins entered the NBA five years ago, he reputedly was not athletic enough to be a good defender and would thrive only with another big man to handle the defensive duties.
But Cousins has evolved from being a big man who could draw charges to being someone who can affect play a variety of ways defensively.
“I kind of listened to people and what they had to say about me as a defender, and I kind of took offense to it,” Cousins said. “I try to better myself as a basketball player all around, not just offensively. I knew I could become better defensively. I just put effort towards that area.”
The Kings put more effort into their defense Saturday.
“The defense was just very, very strong in many, many areas, but consistently for most of the game,” Karl said.
Karl credited ball pressure by Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison for making Orlando’s guards uncomfortable and aiding the Kings’ frontcourt.
Collison said it was the Kings’ best overall defensive game because they avoided the long lapses that have plagued them this season.
“I’m glad that we got out here and played defense, and played defense for nearly 48 minutes,” Collison said.
Collison said Cousins’ impact on the defense can’t be measured simply by statistics.
“It’s his presence alone,” Collison said. “When we see him in the lineup, it’s a big confidence booster because we know we’re going to have a chance to play off an All-Star. It makes the game so much easier. He’s an unselfish player, too.”
The other King who has been an All-Star is Rondo. He had 13 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, snapping a streak of seven games with at least 10 assists. That tied Reggie Theus’ Sacramento-era record.
Omri Casspi played 32 minutes off the bench in the absence of Rudy Gay (strained left shoulder) and had 11 points and a season-high 11 rebounds. Casspi and fellow reserves Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos totaled 36 points.
But it was more about defense, which allowed the Kings to win despite shooting a season-worst 38.3 percent.
“I felt like we did a good job defending, really making them not get into the paint,” Casspi said. “DeMarcus was there to block shots and force them to take tough shots. ... He did a good job defending.”
You could say that about the entire team.