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DeMarcus Cousins, defense have keyed Kings’ five-game winning streak

Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) and teammate DeMarcus Cousins (15) force Indiana forward Paul George (13) to pass the ball after driving to the basket on Saturday, January 23, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) and teammate DeMarcus Cousins (15) force Indiana forward Paul George (13) to pass the ball after driving to the basket on Saturday, January 23, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The mood surrounding the Kings has been upbeat lately, and for good reason.

Sacramento has won a season-high five games in a row.

DeMarcus Cousins has been brilliant over that span, averaging 32.6 points and 14.8 rebounds.

But the Kings’ improved defense might be a bigger key to the streak than Cousins’ dominance.

The defense has been bad for much of the season.

The Kings allow the most points per game (107.2) in the NBA and rank 20th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.454).

During the five-game winning streak, Sacramento has held opponents to 96.4 points per game and 40.1 percent shooting.

No one would call the Kings an elite defensive unit this season, but as long as they progress from the worst in the league, they like their chances most nights.

32.6Points per game for DeMarcus Cousins during the Kings’ five-game winning streak

“We’ve picked it up,” Cousins said. “I still think we could do better, honestly.”

DeMarcus Cousins said he's " happy in the moment but not satisfied," after victory against Pacers. "Playoffs, playoffs."

What’s changed? Besides Cousins playing like a superstar, rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein has started the last five games and injected a defensive spark.

That change came after the Kings’ last loss, Jan. 13 against New Orleans, when defensive intensity was lacking most of the night.

“I can give credit to Willie,” Cousins said. “He’s come in and, as a rookie, changed the whole identity of our team. That’s huge, especially for a rookie. So it just shows his impact on this team, and he does so many things for us that don’t show up on paper.”

The Kings have held their last three opponents under 100 points, and perhaps their most impressive win during the streak, a 91-88 victory Thursday over Atlanta, showed they can win when their high-paced offense is not clicking.

Scrappy teams that slowed the Kings’ offense have given them fits for most of the season.

He’s come in and, as a rookie, changed the whole identity of our team.

DeMarcus Cousins on teammate Willie Cauley-Stein

In the Atlanta game, and even in Saturday’s win over Indiana, the Kings made critical stops late, as there appears to be more pride on defense lately.

“Not only Willie, but I feel like everybody’s picked up the defensive identity, and it’s helping us win games right now,” Cousins said. “So we’ve just got to keep going.”

The Kings have played their way into the top eight in the Western Conference this month and believe they will keep improving if they continue to play better defense.

That means staying sound in their game plans and avoiding letdowns that allow teams to rally and take late leads.

“In order to have some success in the playoffs, you’ve got to continue to maintain your lead, and I thought we did that (against Indiana),” said guard Darren Collison. “All game long we kept putting the pressure on them, not just with our offensive game, but our defense.”

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

"Only thing I was worried about was when and if he was gonna run out of gas a little bit," coach George Karl said about DeMarcus Cousins' 48 point game against the Pacers.

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