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DeMarcus Cousins, Kings still playing for playoffs – in January

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors during an NBA basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. “In my heart I believe we’re going to be in the playoffs this season,” Cousins said.
Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors during an NBA basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. “In my heart I believe we’re going to be in the playoffs this season,” Cousins said. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Yes, the Kings want to play meaningful games in March and April as they try to make the postseason.

But consider this: If you played for the Kings in the past nine seasons, it was safe to begin making vacation plans in January for when the regular season ended in mid-April. Playoffs? That was something the Kings players watched on TV while on vacation.

Welcome to the new world of DeMarcus Cousins.

“It’s eating away at me,” said Cousins, in his sixth season with the Kings. “Excited to know that we’ve got a chance. I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m excited to see what happens. In my heart, I believe we’re going to be in the playoffs this season.”

The Kings host New Orleans on Wednesday night and play at Utah on Thursday. The Jazz entered Tuesday night two games ahead of the Kings for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

So if the Kings (15-22) want to continue to play meaningful games until April, now would be a good time to make a push in the standings.

“We’re in a race,” Kings coach George Karl said. “After our (1-7) start we’re fortunate to be in a race and we’ve just got to take care of the future of that.”

The Kings, 14-15 since the poor start, are also fortunate the Western Conference is not as strong as in past seasons. The Kings actually had a better record last season after 37 games at 16-21 but were six games behind for the eighth playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. The team lost 11 of its next 12 games to fall out of playoff contention.

More veterans with playoff experience were added in the offseason in hopes of keeping such a downturn from happening again. The veterans are now helping players like Cousins navigate this process. With playoff hopes dashed early in past seasons, Kings players had to find something to inspire them through the second half of the season.

For Cousins, that meant trying to prove critics wrong and using personal or professional slights, even those on social media, to get him going. The critics still drive Cousins, but they aren’t as accessible. He recently removed social media applications from his phone.

“I’m not out to prove I can play anymore, that I’m the best big man, whatever the case may be,” Cousins said. “I’m here to win games. That’s all I’m thinking about, I’m here to win games.”

Winning when there’s pressure has been different, and Cousins has done his part lately. He’s averaging 32.4 points, 13 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 51.4 percent over his past five games.

And with the All-Star voting process taking place, the timing couldn’t be better. Last season Cousins made his first Western Conference All-Star team as an injury replacement. He said he appreciates the fan support but that’s not what is driving him this season.

“I’m not really focused on (All-Star consideration),” Cousins said. “I’ve done the high scoring, whatever the case may be. I’m just trying to win games ... It’s good to be recognized but it’s not what I’m focused on.”

Karl said getting through this time of the season is physically and mentally grinding, and for players like Cousins, who have never been in the playoff hunt throughout the season, it’ll be an education.

“Eighty-two games is definitely a learning process, 82 games is hard,” Karl said. “It’s a marathon race of mental focus and physical fatigue and injuries and playing through injuries. And the thing I believe and players understand I believe, it’s not necessarily always about winning and losing, but the process of getting better on a daily basis, game-to-game basis.

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Still, the Kings must learn how to win close games – and to not lose winnable games against teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Sit back and think about some of those losses, we’re a team in the sixth spot right now,” Cousins said. “We just don’t want to continue to make those same mistakes that you made earlier in the year.”

Next to Cousins, Ben McLemore is the second-longest tenured King playing in his third season. Last January, they were on their second of three Kings head coaches in the 2014-15 season and thoughts of the playoffs were laughable.

“It’s definitely a different feeling,” McLemore said. “My first two years we weren’t even close, and now we have the ability to push it and get over that hump and make the playoffs. It’s definitely a different feeling, a great feeling.”

"It's bigger than us. It ain't about who's the better team," DeMarcus Cousins said after the Sacramento Kings 128-116 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

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

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